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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Playing House features two women in love—just not romantically

Illustration for article titled Playing House features two women in love—just not romantically
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Best Friends Forever was one of those sitcoms that was doomed from the start, not because of quality but because of neglect. The small-but-wonderful show centered on Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham as the besties of the title. It was swiftly canceled after a scant six episodes, to be remembered only by the few who watched it. For them, the death of Best Friends Forever meant the destruction one of the best portrayals of female friendship to ever hit the small screen.

Parham and St. Clair get a second chance with Playing House. Their USA sitcom isn’t all that different from Best Friends Forever: A woman is going through a personal crisis, her best friend sacrifices to save her. In Best Friends Forever, it was St. Clair’s character who was dumped by her husband, with only the hetero life partner (Parham) to turn to for both shelter and emotional comfort. Here, the roles are reversed, with elevated stakes in the form of a growing baby bump. Parham’s Maggie is eight months pregnant with her butt-obsessed husband’s baby; St. Clair’s Emma, on the other hand, is a high-power businesswoman based in Shanghai who bristles at returning to the picturesque Connecticut town where she and Maggie grew up. Of course, she goes home again anyway because her best friend wants her to and that’s what best friends do. But when a baby-shower mishap reveals that the father, Bruce (Brad Morris), has been having an online affair, he gets the boot and Emma gives up her life to play mother’s helper.

Friendship is at the heart of some of the best female-driven comedies. The love story in male-centric comedies tends to focus on romantic partnership, usually with a woman too good for our leading man. There are certainly examples that highlight the power of brotherhood—Animal House, Superbad, to name a fewbut the phenomenom of platonic love as the driving force behind the story is much more prevalent in comedies starring women, wherein men play support in service to the other love story playing out between the two main characters. Parham and St. Clair excel at naturally bringing this kind of relationship to the screen. It’s the crux of both of their television collaborations, and the two have incredible chemistry together, with Parham as flustered straight man reining in the more off-the-wall St. Clair.

It’s important to note that Parham and St. Clair are also the creative forces behind both Best Friends Forever and Playing House. Without their input behind the scenes, the shows couldn’t capture the specific beats of their central relationships. In the second of two episodes distributed to critics, “Birdbones,” Emma and Maggie make fun of an old high-school acquaintance (Lindsay Sloane) now married to Emma’s high-school-boyfriend-turned-town-cop (Keegan-Michael Key). It’s not overly catty—their main problem with her is she’s too perfect—but it highlights the practiced cadences and jokes of two people who have done this countless times before. Appreciate the bonds of lady-ships they can bring to the screen, enjoy their output. Don’t relate? Not worth the time.

While that loving relationship between these two women is Playing House’s strength, to unlock its potential, and go beyond delightful sitcom, it needs to be about more than that, and there’s certainly potential for that growth. “Birdbones,” for instance, loses sight of the emotional heft of the first episode and instead focuses on the satirization of small town life, an aspect of the show that is not as fully formed as the chemistry between its two leads. Because of that, other characters can sometimes feel like they are perfunctorily included because the show needed more people in it. When Key gets a plot of his own—about the recovery of stolen garden gnomes—he feels disconnected to the rest of the show. That may certainly be an early speed bump, one that seems larger because the indelible connection between Parham and St. Clair gives their characters immediate dimensionality. The premise of Playing House—female friendship as a constructed family writ large—allows for a depth not often seen on a USA. Parham and St. Clair just need to mine it. These two women may not be romantically linked but their relationship is similar to a marriage—and in Maggie’s case, stronger than one.