Back in 2012, which certainly isn’t long ago, NBC brought you Best Friends Forever, which starred Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. Best friends of a higher order, who now live on opposite sides of the country, are brought back together when one of them suddenly finds herself holding divorce papers. As they begin living together again, plus one boyfriend, hilarity ensues as they face life together, and learn new things about being adults, and what it really means to have a friend you know better than you know yourself. Well, something like that anyway.
Now USA is giving Parham and St. Clair another shot with Playing House, in what is basically the same show, except that we’ve replaced the boyfriend with a baby. In this version, Maggie (Parham) is pregnant, and Emma (St. Clair) is flying back to her small town home for the baby shower. Again, the pair were once best friends, but Emma has been working at a massively important corporate job for the last 11 years, and Maggie settled down, and is finally having a baby. When things don’t quite go as planned at the baby shower, Maggie finds herself in a difficult position, and Emma decides sometimes you go where life takes you.
That sets the stage for our show that is going to revolve around Emma’s dislike for the small town, the general meaning behind a friendship for the ages, and all the difficulties inherent in raising a baby.
Much like BFF, this is less a “situation comedy,” and more a “moment comedy.” Showing their background with Upright Citizens Brigade, the comedy builds out of the situations, as opposed to being a result of the situation simply being offered. That may seem a tricky distinction, but if you are going to get anything out of Playing House, it’s going to be by way of the Parham and St. Clair’s ability to react. This is perhaps something along the lines of Three’s Company and Mork & Mindy existing largely as excuses to watch Ritter and Williams. If you aren’t a fan of their comedy stylings, you’re out of luck.
Taking that a step further, there’s also an air of improv about the show, even to the extent that it makes you wonder about the production. A key moment in the pilot finds us in the living room playing a baby shower game (apparently), and we then move to a surprise that Emma has put together for Maggie with the help of their friend Zach (The Office‘s Zach Woods). The surprise goes very wrong, and the whole thing feels like an improv setup. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that only the key actors knew what the surprise was going to be and/or that there weren’t really lines written for the scene at all. That probably isn’t true, but just the fact that it seems like it might be true means that we’re in fairly brilliant territory.
On the other hand, that seemingly unscripted quality doesn’t always lead to gold, and may not be what everyone is looking for. You have to take the spastic reactions to raccoons with the good, and certain throwaways, like the weird kiss, aren’t quite as funny as they must have seemed.
But, Playing House has two major things going for it that BFF didn’t – it’s on USA, and it has a broader supporting cast to mix in. Along with Zach Woods, the show also features Keegan-Michael Key (Key and Peele), and Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle), and it looks like we’ll actually be getting their balancing abilities to round out the overall comedic abilities of the show. More importantly, this is the kind of show that needs a chance to brew, and get you to fall for the characters. Like BFF, which was a good show, it just isn’t the sort of theory that is likely to rocket out of the gates. On any big network, it’s a long shot, because it needs a network that is going to really get behind it, and is confident that it’s going to come together and pull you in. USA clearly believes in the show, which means it will get a chance to gel.
The more I force myself to think about it, the more this show seems to have the flavor of a lot of the best shows from those ancient days when I was growing up… and there were only the three channels. Everything got a chance back then, and slower development was the norm. The best reaction you were looking for from a pilot was, “Hmm… this looks like it will get interesting,” and it wasn’t until the middle of a season (at the earliest) that you really had an idea if people liked the show.
In the end, this all probably amounts to a recommendation that sounds like damning with faint praise, but there is a place for shows that need a few episodes to get rolling, and many of them end up as the best shows there are. Give this one a chance, and I think you’re going to be happy with it.
You can catch the pilot right now at – http://www.usanetwork.com/playinghouse
You can also get a whole lot of info and clips at the interactive house here – http://interactivehouse.usanetwork.com/home