Married is essentially about how people cope with disappointment. That’s a broad generalization, especially after only two episodes, but what the show is already revealing is how shallowly most sitcoms about married people delve into the fact that adulthood is a long, unending series of arguments with yourself—that you know what you’re doing and that everything is going according to plan. Traditional sitcoms play that constant disillusionment as a feel-good story of learning and growth. Darker takes show it as a cruel joke on youthful idealism and dreams. Married is getting under its skin and revealing how thoughtful people reconcile the lives they imagined they’d have with the mundane realities of too-small showers, the difficulty of following through when things get tough, and staggering, unexpected vet bills.
“The Shower,” like the pilot, deliberately deconstructs standard sitcom plots. In the pilot, it was the husband edging toward infidelity (albeit with the wife’s halfhearted approval). In “The Shower,” it’s a handful of plot threads that, on another show, would be played for broad yuks but here serve to illustrate character and show how the same stock situations can produce something far more interesting. Mission statement or not, Married keeps tiptoeing up to the edge of predictability and then veering away into more productive territory. In their bare bones, the details couldn’t be more formulaic: Russ, in a hurry to force his way into Lina’s solo shower time, lets the dog out where it gets injured, resulting in that shocking vet bill. ($5000 for a broken leg? Dog people—is that a thing?) Russ approaches friend A.J. for a loan, only to get guilted into accompanying A.J. to his ex-wife’s engagement party. Russ and Lina then get hijacked by A.J. and Jess, respectively, with A.J. springing two prostitutes he’s hired on Russ and Jess springing two young coworkers (one of whom she’s been flirting with) on Lina. Again, in their unadorned descriptions, these stories could be the stepping off point for boorish, crude comedy as, indeed, they have been many times. What Married does is take a traditional sitcom and superimpose it on a quartet of lived-in characters, whose responses to the same situations transform it into something richer, and sadder.
Which isn’t to say that “The Shower” avoids all the possible sitcom landmines. Russ and Lina oversharing the details of their naked shower disaster with the nonplussed receptionist at the vet’s office is pretty broad, and their exchange when seeing A.J.’s ex’s new house (“I hope my next husband is this rich.” “Well, you’re free to marry him as soon as my second wife graduates high school.”) is funny, but scripted-funny. But otherwise, the characters in Married continue to feel inhabited and genuine.
Elsewhere, Brett Gelman’s signature grinning, bright-eyed creepiness can be effective (see Eagleheart). Here, his A.J., while on the surface the same sort of “wacky, reckless pal,” brings the character’s inherent desperation to the fore, and it’s affecting. Oh, he’s still creepy and broad—taking the two flustered hookers on a tour of his empty former home, he splashes his heartbreak all over the bare rooms with a running monologue that’d be played for mean laughs on another show. Here, Gelman imbues the guy with a weary self-awareness that’s both touching and awkward.
As is Nat Faxon’s Russ, who tries to keep the evening from turning into a disaster, while at the same time being acutely aware of both the increasingly compromised position he’s in (underwear chicken fights with two hookers in the pool, to cite one example), and the fact that he’s hoping his friend will lend him a large sum of money. For the second week in a row, the fact that Russ finds himself tempted to cheat (he does tentatively touch that one woman’s ass on a trampoline here) would be off-putting if Married weren’t so aware of his culpability. Thankfully, the “license to cheat” plot from the pilot has disappeared (with only that expensive little dog to remind us of it), and here, Russ’ temptation as unwilling wingman to the needy A.J. finds the character getting off on the tingly possibilities of adultery without having to follow through. (A phone call from his daughter needing rescue from the sleepover jitters whisks him away, the practicality of family obligations seeing him don his clothes and shed his fantasy in an instant.) Faxon is great throughout this sequence—asked to play straight man to Gelman’s showier angst, he lets his conflicted responsibilities play over his face with anxious unpredictability.
As for Lina, her night out with Jenny Slate’s Jess is a parallel taste of freedom—except that it’s not. I loved how matter-of-fact the two women are after A.J. and Russ leave the party. On another show, the fact that they’ve been ditched would be signal for a big comic scene. Here, it’s treated as a matter of course—not that it’s a regular occurrence, but that it’s just how four people who know each other very well interact sometimes. It’s the same when Jess pulls Russ into the bathroom on a pretext in order for them to do some lines. Lina knows and rolls her eyes at the pretense, but the relationship of the three characters is sketched in by how familiar it is to all of them. Married is proving especially deft at characterization through elision.
And once Jess cajoles Lina to the bar for shots and flirting with her not-so-innocent work crush (Slate does a little move with her knees to entice Lina along, which might be the most endearing thing I’ve seen all year), Lina has fun. Sure, she’s still got those tired eyes, but after a bit she lets herself loosen up, even allowing herself to be coaxed onto the dance floor (Slate demonstrating to Lina how to shake her boobs while dancing might be the second most adorable thing I’ve seen all year). Judy Greer simply refuses to be trapped in the sitcom wife role. Her Lina here, like Faxon’s Russ in his parallel night of constrained debauchery, plays all manner of colors, every action echoing with the multiple roles her life demands of her. Of the four main central characters on Married, Greer’s is the most conventional, but the actress’ ability to portray how restrictive that role is produces the most affecting friction.
When Russ and Lina’s separate adventures end with them exhaustedly tumbling into bed, their conversation is particularly revealing. Russ tells Lina that A.J. has given them the money for the dog, to which the drunken Lina says, “A.J. is the best!” Russ replies, “Sometimes” with a wistfulness that pulls in both Russ’ ambivalence about his friend’s state of mind and his behavior—and his own. (Both he and the show know that his night was not as blameless as Lina’s.) Russ’ exposition about why he keeps trying to climb into showers with his wife may be a little too neat, but is still touching. The commercials for the episode (which keep pulling out the most typical sitcom laugh lines, to the show’s detriment) made a big deal out of Russ wanting to shower with Lina in their host’s impossibly huge bathroom setup (four shower heads!), but the way that scene plays out is much more revealing than the typical “wacky husband” plot it suggests. (Again, the ads keep portraying Russ as more of a kooky manchild than he actually is.) Acting out thanks to Jess’ cocaine, Russ entreats Lina with the line, “We used to do shit like this!” with an underlying desperation in his enthusiasm. Lina’s smile is genuine, as is her “You are so cute right now” in response. They did use to do shit like that. But tonight they’re both exhausted, and a sleep-mumbled promise to meet at an imaginary future vacation villa will have to do.
- “I can’t believe you have three kids.” “It’s true.” “Are they cool?” “Not really.”
- Thinking about bailing on the party, Lina’s “We have a bottle of wine—let’s go drink it in the park” is another example of the show explaining the couple’s relationship without making a big deal of it.
- Lina and Jess’ relationship, again sketched out in a few lines (and some unspoken ones): Lina describes Jess as “my husband’s good friend.” When Jess objects, Lina backtracks, her explanation cut short by Jess’ “Don’t strain yourself. Sorry you’re slumming it with your husband’s friend. Maybe you should get your own friends.”
- Slate’s little choked, sarcastic laugh when Faxon zings her is great—it’s a small role, but Slate is killing in it.
- “My last resume was on a floppy disc.”
- So we know that Russ works (but not at what), and that Lina is thinking about going back to work. I’m enjoying that Married is in no hurry to establish everyone’s circumstances from the outset as most shows would.
- A.J., watching the two girls on the mini-trampoline: “If I die right now—it’d be sad, it would. Not the way I wanna go. It would confuse a lot of people.”
- A.J.: “So are you girls bisexual, or what?” The girls start to make out. Russ: “Guys, the man asked you a question.”
- A.J.’s genuine concern when Russ gets a call from his daughter is particularly humanizing. He knows his debauchery is an affectation—his concern for his friend breaks through it immediately.
- As many shades as Gelman brings to A.J.’s dissipation, him telling the hookers, “It’s pajama time!” did sound a lot like something a serial killer would say.
- Married throws in a gut-punch of a line for the second episode in a row. Russ’ daughter, ashamed after bailing on another sleepover asks tearfully, “Everything gets easier when you’re a grownup, right?” Russ, having just come from a gathering consisting of a desperately depressed friend and two prostitutes perhaps eight years older that his daughter, can only lie and tell her that of course it does.