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Saturday, May 3, 2014

USA is PLAYING HOUSE

Article first published as TV Review: 'Playing House' - 'Pilot; Bird Bones' on Blogcritics.

PH1USA premieres Playing House, this week with a two-episode premiere, the network’s second-ever sitcom. In the first episode “Pilot,” Emma Carter (Jessica St. Clair, Bridesmaids) gives up her career to move back home and help her pregnant best friend, Maggie Caruso (Lennon Parham, Confessions of a Shopaholic), raise her baby after Maggie kicks out her no-good husband. In the second episode, “Bird Bones,” the girls make an effort to befriend Emma’s ex-boyfriend’s wife.

If Playing House seems familiar, you may be thinking of the short-lived series Best Friends Forever, also starring and created by Parham and St. Clair. Maggie and Emma are very similar to those characters, Parham once again portraying a woman in a relationship, while St. Clair is the single girl. Once again, the focus is much more on the friendship than on their romantic entanglements. The chemistry between the two women is really the backbone of the show.

In “Pilot,” Maggie’s husband, Bruce (Brad Morris, Cougar Town), is caught cheating on her in a big, public way, establishing why Emma would quit her successful career to come back to a town she hates. On one hand, I’m disappointed with the cheating setup, because Maggie’s marriage had seemed so solid. I had assumed Bruce would be killed off, which might have been a more emotionally satisfying turn of events. On the other, Playing House is solidly a comedy, and even the dramatic moments are played for laughs, thanks to a raccoon or other outside influence, so by making Bruce a cheater, they don’t have to get too deep or sad.

“Bird Bones” takes a similar tact as Maggie and Emma have brunch with Tina Rodriguez (Lindsay Sloane, Horrible Bosses), the wife of Emma’s ex, policeman Mark (Keegan-Michael Key, Key & Peele). This could be a charged sequence in which Emma worries about past wrongs, and the girls feel deeply bad about how they treated Tina in high school. Instead, the women accidentally get soaked in Tina’s shower, then help her sort through a room full of junk that she secretly hoards. Laughs are much more important that development for these characters.

It’s a broad style of comedy, but it works well because the relationship between the females at the center is so well-established and authentic: a modern day Lucy and Ethel, except with both on equal footing. They are two real-life friends who really enjoy one another, and that shows on screen.

I’m really glad they have been given a second chance at a series because I liked their first effort and this one feels much the same, perhaps with even more freedom to be edgy, Playing House airing on cable instead of a broadcast network. The tone may not be for everyone, but the good news is that it’s established right away so you’ll know within the first few minutes whether to invest your time or not. For my part, I think it’s definitely worth it.

The supporting cast is strong and in demand, which could hurt the long-term viability of Playing House. Key has his own successful Comedy Central series which he writes and stars in, as well as just completing a run on FX’s Fargo. The cast also includes Zach Woods (The Office and one of the stars of HBO’s Silicon Valley) playing Maggie’s odd brother with a crush on Emma. These types of players will certainly add to the appeal of the show, but could make it hard to schedule many episodes in a year, though thankfully cable usually asks for fewer installments than, say, NBC.

With Sirens and Playing House, USA has made a serious foray into the comedy world. A bit more intelligent than most TBS sitcoms, which is probably the closest thing to compare them to, these are enjoyable shows with talented people. More like this batch and we’ll soon forget the network used to just be fluffy, funny, light weight procedurals.

Playing House airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA.

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