in Television

TV Review: “Playing House” Puts Friendship at the Forefront

You get the feeling, from Playing House, that Emma and Maggie are the kind of characters that could be placed in any time, city or out-of-space arena, and yet they’d still retain their weirdly great chemistry.

But Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham have placed their always real and sometimes fictional friendship in the small town of Pinebrook for Playing House, and slowly but surely over the course of the first season, the town began to flesh out.

In fact, one of the most exciting things about Playing House is how it became clear, in the back-half of the season, that the pair does intend to widen the Pinebrook society. In the first ten episodes we got to meet a host of people (including the police squad, Maggie’s lawyer, and her ex-mother in law to name a few, as well as Zach Woods who delights- as per usual- as Maggie’s brother) and already, they have that feel that some of Pawnee’s best recurring characters from Parks and Recreation do.

Playing House focuses on Emma’s return to the town, after the heavily pregnant Maggie discovers that her husband has been cheating on her and kicks him out of the house. Emma drops her high-profile business in China to come back for her friend, facing the people that she ran away from (including her ex-fiance Keegan-Michael Key and mother Jane Kackazmarek), while Maggie faces her new life as a single, pregnant woman.

As good as the supporting cast is though (and Keegan-Michael Key as Mark is very, very charming), it’s the friendship between Maggie and Emma that sustains the show. There’s something giddy about the two of them on screen together, and the small town setting works so well when you see them out and about, because they constantly absorb the space that they’re in together. Broad City is so great partly because New York City is the catalyst for so many of Abbie and Ilana’s adventures. But Pinebrook works in a different way for Maggie and Emma: it allows them to own the space in their show, and historically connect with their setting. Big cities are about adventures and freedom, with something new around every corner.

But small-town settings like the one in Playing House force a closeness between the characters, and make Emma’s return (and her avoidance of the people that she left behind) and Maggie’s marriage dissolution play out in an enclosed, almost claustrophobic space. There’s no anonymity for the characters in Playing House, something that could be frightening, if they didn’t clearly love each other (and the town itself) so much.

I didn’t expect, from where the show started, to end up in tears, but that’s where Playing House takes its two-part season finale. Maggie finally gives birth in the penultimate episode (after weeks of having heavily pregnant adventures), and when she’s giving up and says can’t do it, Emma reminds her of one of the worst days of her life: her parents’ funeral. Maggie got through that with Emma holding her hand, and she gets through the birth of her daughter the same way. “Let’s Have a Baby,” feels like the perfect finale for the show, so it’s jarring (but interesting, I think) that there’s still one more episode left in Playing House’s first season.

“Bugs in Your Eyes” skips six months, with baby Charlotte finally an established part of Maggie and Emma’s life. And while it certainly feels like the start of a second season and a new beginning for the show, I appreciate that they made the jump at the end of season one. Playing House has never been a show about the unexpected. People are watching it because it’s a comedy where Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham said they’re going to look after a baby together and get into funny situations. It wouldn’t have been a shock to leave the season hanging after the birth of Maggie’s daughter, but it’s also more comforting to see the time shift, and to be able to immediately place our characters in this new phase of their lives.

And so, Playing House lets us in on the secret a little early, skipping a few months and showing off its newest character. But none of that really matters, because Playing House could be about nothing and still be enjoyable, thanks to its creators and lead actresses.

Series Grade: A-