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Playing House: “Employee Of The Month”

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Playing House has largely been a chance for Keegan-Michael Key to play it straight as Mark. On the brilliant Key & Peele he bursts with a kinetic energy, playing each of characters with a physical enthusiasm, his long limbs askew whenever possible. Watch him in any skit and he fearlessly throws anything and everything he’s got into a character. But Mark is more subdued. He’s playing a real person, often trying to counteract the crazy that is both Emma and Maggie and his soon-to-be ex-wife Bird Bones. That’s not to say that Mark is a bad character, he’s a necessary grounding force in the grand scheme of the Playing House universe. Nor is Mark a step back for Key into some boring character. In a lot of ways, he’s a step forward, allowing him to show a vulnerability and flex his dramatic muscles in a way that he has not be given the opportunity before in his other roles. Whereas Key got to show off those chops in “Knotty Pine,” in “Employee Of The Month,” Key was able to cast off his straight man status for at least the episode, as picks up the pieces of his broken life. He was characteristically great, one of the more gifted physical comedians working today. But even more importantly, Key’s chemistry with Jessica St. Clair’s Emma was on point. They’ve always bantered well against each other, but “Employee Of The Month” gave them even more time to play.

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The biggest difference between the first season of Playing House and the second is a bit of a shift to a serial format. There were plot points that carried over from episode to episode in the first season—namely Maggie’s pregnancy—but for the most part each episode could exist as a standalone. But with the introduction of Rabbi Dan, there seems to be more of a focus on a keeping a throughline to the series than there was during the first season. “Employee Of The Month” was a specific turning point in Emma’s arc. Just as Emma entered into a new relationship, Mark exited his, the one thing that was keeping him and Emma apart. Rabbi Dan, other than slight hiccups from “Cashmere Burka,” has been an inoffensive character, a guy whose biggest trait at this point is thinking Emma is totes kewl. Because of that, the only reason to root against him is that we as an audience are rooting for Mark and Emma. It’ll be interesting to see how Emma and Rabbi Dan’s relationship is handled. Does he become the bad guy so there’s a yet another reason to root for the demise of their relationship? Or do they let Emma potentially be a bad person by leaving Rabbi Dan for Mark? Either way, Rabbi Dan will have to become something more than a man of god who wants to get into Emma’s pants.

While Mark may have gotten the emotionally hefty moment in “Knotty Pine,” that goes to Lennon Parham’s Maggie in “Employee Of The Month.” Maggie and Emma have very much been defined by their friendship with each other, and the other people of Pinewood. Considering that most portrayal of women on TV and movies is through their relationship with men, I’m not complaining. But “Employee Of The Month” gave Maggie a goal outside of friendship and mother, while still serving the show’s general theme: Maggie may not have a husband, but she does have her reconstituted family to lean on. In the Maggie-Emma duo, Maggie tends to be the more grounded of the two. It’s Emma who is watching too much Steve Harvey, not Maggie. So when Maggie gets the chance to lose it, like in “Cashmere Burka,” Parham takes the opportunity to really go for it. In turn, it forces Emma to take on the caregiver role that Maggie is so used to playing. It’s a pleasure to watch them do both.

Stray observations

  • Best Friends Forever fans! I saw a tweet that there was a BFF Easter egg in this episode and I couldn’t find it. Help a sister out and tell me what it was in the comments, plz. Alas, it was not Queenetta.
  • Prancercise!!
  • “You have a whole beehive of problems. Number one: You have a beehive.”
  • “Your ankles going to be fine but you do appear to be a child trapped in a man’s body so get that checked out.”
  • “I gotta go to Cabot Cove because ntohing bad happens there.” “Only bad things happen there. There’s a murder like every week.” “Then Jessica solves it because she’s a crime solver and a novelist and that’s sexy as hell.”
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