What’s particularly amazing about Playing House is how comfortable it feels. It’s the same reason it has this dedicated fan base of Jammers who pleaded with USA to renew the show after its lovely first season. USA made sure to keep fans dangling for as long as possible, axing other shows (R.I.P. Benched) before giving Playing House season two the greenlight. I, like the (decidedly small) hordes of those on Twitter crying out for more Maggie and Emma, am glad they did. In the second-season opener, “Hello, Old Friend,” we catch up with Maggie (Lennon Parham), Emma (Jessica St. Clair) and baby Charlotte, now aged to six months old, making a go of it as an alternative family, something they will have to explain to the people of Pinebrook. But while they‘re explaining what that means to their terrible photographer (Upright Citizen Brigade‘s Matt Besser), Emma is also forced to hold a giant banana and then don an enormous toucan mask. Because this is Playing House, after all, and while it may be about how to define the families that we create in ways beyond the traditional unit, it’s also smartly about the wackadoos who live in Pinewood, creating a world that goes beyond these two women. But what’s so smart about the second season, so far, is that the focus remains on Maggie and Emma. Baby Charlotte hasn’t earned her comedic bona fides yet.
How comfortable Playing House feels—and “comfortable” is really the right word to describe this show—is due to the incredible chemistry between creators and stars St. Clair and Parham, which cannot be overstated enough. They bounce off each other with rapid-fire intensity, as if they talk like that all the time. And perhaps they do, as real-life best friends and near constant collaborators (PSA: If you haven’t listened to the Womp It Up podcast, do yourself a favor and stop reading this recap). It’s not just the way that these two can play off one another, but the weird little insights they give into each other. In “Hello, Old Friend,” Maggie and Emma are forced—okay, not forced, but strongly compelled—to break into the house of their archnemeses Bird Bones (Lindsay Sloane) and Mark (Keegan Michael Key). Emma refuses to go in. Maggie convinces to Emma to enter the house by questioning her best friend at her core: C’mon, can she really resist the opportunity to snoop around the house of her mortal enemy? It’s one of these little details that makes not only these characters feel so real and fleshed out, but also their friendship. When they fight in “Sleepless in Pinebrook” about the outfit Emma is going to wear on her first date out post-Charlotte, they do so with a lovely intimacy. What if things get hot and heavy? Emma asks when she finds out Maggie is wearing a maternity bra. “Easy access. Want a boob? Flop, there it is,” Emma says.
But that chemistry is also beginning to extend to the rest of the ensemble, who have earned themselves a position in the St. Clair-Parham circle. Brad Morris had the unenviable position of being the closest thing to a villain last season as Bruce, who was caught cheating Maggie, prompting Emma to return from her work in Japan. His position was always precarious: Why is he there, and why should we not hate this guy? But he integrated considerably better into both “Hello, Old Friend” and “Sleepless in Pinebrook” than he did through most of the first season. He’s still there because he’s a good dad, and you can’t hate him, even though he broke Maggie’s heart.
That’s the thing with the Playing House world—you aren’t really supposed to dislike anyone. Even Bird Bones (oh poor Bird Bones), who returns to hate on Emma and fawn over Renée the French bulldog. She’s standing in the way of Emma and Mark’s near-inevitable relationship. Yet, the writers are careful to make her sympathetic. She’s not evil. Sure, she’s a lunatic, but so is everyone else, including the leads and the many men of Pinebrook looking to date Maggie (and, of course, party). It’s through these dates that we see the arc of the first season form. Maggie may not be ready to date, but Emma certainly doesn’t need to stay single. At the end of Tinder-meet, she literally runs into a man with a seemingly intense love of challah (Kyle Bornheimer, a fine, affable sitcom actor who has, by no fault of his own, been a part of a lot of failed TV shows). Perhaps Mark has some competition?
One of the smartest things about “Hello, Old Friend” and “Sleepless in Pinebrook” is that Charlotte is a factor, her existence propels the plot, but she is not its central focus. Let’s be real, babies are boring. They don’t talk and they’re not funny on purpose. Plus, no comedic timing and they refuse to work blue. But in both episodes, Charlotte is the reason the plot exists, yet not the focus of the episode. In “Hello, Old Friend,” Emma and Maggie must break into Mark and Bird Bones’ house to find Charlotte’s puppet after Emma and Mark’s clandestine hang session, but there are other reasons they could have broken into the house. The same goes for “Sleepless in Pinebrook.” Emma could convince Charlotte to go out on a date with Darius Rucker and Mad Men’s Rich Sommer even without a baby (and Emma could still fantasize about those sweet, sweet Property Brothers). The center of the show is still Emma and Maggie. They have a new reason for existing, but it’s not their only reason for existing.
I liked “Sleepless in Pinebrook” more than “Hello, Old Friend,” if only because I love the weirdo Pinebrook vibe, but the latter is really the perfect title for the opening salvo of Playing House’s second season. We only spent a handful of episodes with this lovely little show last year, but returning to it feels wholly natural to come home to.