When Playing House debuted on the USA network in 2014, it was an instant and buoyant delight; in fact, the whole first season was whip-smart and confident, nimbly crafting a world that was both heartfelt and hilarious. The second season expanded and fine-tuned the best parts of the show by seizing on a charming romantic subplot and offering an honest look at juggling parenthood and a career change. While Playing House has always been excellent television, the third season pulls off a stunning balancing act, maintaining the hi-jinks that the show is known for whilst telling a beautiful, empowering story of cancer survival. Inspired by co-star and co-creator Jessica St. Clair’s real-life battle with breast cancer, this season is deeper and funnier, with a surprising emotional complexity and a willingness to approach some difficult topics with real humour and warmth.
The premise of Playing House is deceptively simple. Maggie Caruso (Lennon Parham) is left to rethink her entire life when she discovers, at a surprise baby shower thrown in her honour, that her husband Bruce (Brad Morris) has been spending money to fund an online affair. Emma Crawford (Jessica St. Clair), Maggie’s life-long best friend, decides to quit her job as an international businesswoman to move back to her hometown and support Maggie through single parenthood, reconnecting with her first love Mark Rodriguez (Keegan-Michael Key) in the process. If this sounds like the framework for any number of generic sitcoms, that’s because it is. In less self-assured hands, Playing House could’ve felt formless and broad, but Parham and St. Clair have a strong comedic vision and litter the episodes with appealing specificity. Fans of the show will be glad to hear that this season doubles down on the duo’s strange vocabulary, and the town of Pinewood gets even weirder and more layered as the season progresses.
When it’s firing on all comedic cylinders, season three pulls off some of the funniest moments of the year. In the episode “Paging Doctor Yes Please”, Maggie is tasked with appearing in a promotional video for the hospital where she works. All goes well until she thinks she sees her crush, the chilly Dr. Clive Ericson (Ben Willbond), flirting with another woman. Maggie panics and ad-libs her lines, eventually bursting into song and busting out some body rolls. Here, Parham manages the impressive feat of behaving like an alien has taken over her body while simultaneously making Maggie’s anxiety feel deeply, achingly human. It’s also so funny that it makes the whole episode rewatchable.
In the sixth episode of the season, “Ride the Dragon”, Maggie throws a party, only to mistakenly feed her guests edible marijuana. It speaks to the quality of the writing that this hokey premise offers up moments of loose-limbed slapstick and touching pathos. St. Clair gets her moment to show off her comedic chops in the very funny “None Of Your Business”, in which Emma gets involved in a cosmetic Ponzi scheme. A particular highlight of the season is Emma’s elaborate attempt to “make over” Maggie in order to sell more makeup. St. Clair is excellent at channeling a maniacal confidence, a sureness in her own ability that’s both frightening and charming, as if she doesn’t quite understand the rules of the world around her.
Each episode offers multiple moments of wit and shenanigans, and the jokes never feel forced, springing up from a very human place. It’s impressive how well established the characters are and how truthful their comedic adventures feel. Maggie is competent, often comically so, but afraid of losing control and fearful that she won’t be able to switch the direction of her life. Emma is fiercely loyal and assertive but dependant and worried that her role in her own life isn’t well defined. Even when these women are at their most clownish, they still feel like they have hopes and fears. For example, an episode about a local women’s basketball team, “Gwen Or Lose”, allows St. Clair to embody Emma’s hilariously uncoordinated physicality, while also telling a story about Emma’s mother’s (Jane Kaczmarek) attempts to embrace all of the things she sacrificed in order to become a young mother and wife. It’s always funny and it’s always empathetic.
The series’ humour is supported by a fantastic supporting cast; Key is always amusing and an adroit romantic lead, Zach Woods returns as Maggie’s eccentric brother and puts in a truly quirky performance, and Parham and St. Clair have found the perfect way to channel Lindsay Sloane’s brittle power. Fans of the show will be excited to learn that Maggie’s beloved alter-ego, the nightmarish Bosephus, makes a glorious comeback in the finale, and those who miss St. Clair and Parham’s short-lived, but wonderful, NBC sitcom “Best Friends Forever” will surely get a thrill from Daija Owens’s cameo.
Sometimes when comedies take on serious material it can weigh the whole thing down, watering down the emotional impact of the subject matter and disrupting the comedic flow. Happily, the opposite is true here; Emma’s cancer diagnosis lands like a sledgehammer, but the community’s attempts to support her are funny and heartfelt. It’s telling that after her diagnosis, Emma demands that Maggie googles the cancers that kill Debra Winger and Barbara Hershey’s characters in Terms of Endearment and Beaches, respectively; she has to metabolise her own grief and shock through other female narratives. It’s a devastating moment, but it’s also a funny one, revealing how Emma worldview is shaped by the female relationships that turn out to be a source of strength for her in her darkest moments.
It’s impressive and, for those who can identify with this storyline, important that St. Clair and Parham delve into the more difficult aspects of being, as well as caring for, somebody who’s battling cancer, without becoming preachy or inauthentic. Towards the end of “Paging Doctor Yes Please”, Emma asks Maggie if she’s “going to be okay”. Maggie stops for a second and admits, “I don’t really know” before reminding Emma how strong she is and how much support she has within Pinebrook. This admission speaks both to how maturely the topic is handled and how honestly these characters are able to communicate with each other. Whilst the show is very funny, it doesn’t skirt around the pain and fear at the center of the plotline that ultimately galvanises the relationship at the heart of the show.
Without a doubt, the stand-out episode of the season and, in my view, one of the best episodes of television this year, is “You Wanna Roll With This??”, which focuses on Emma’s double mastectomy. It’s an eminently graceful half hour that grapples with a lot of characters and yet manages not to feel suffocating. Key finds an openness in Mark that makes his grief surprisingly accessible, and Parham’s performance of a mini-breakdown should be sent to Emmy voters immediately. It speaks to the generosity at the core of the show that these perspectives are given equal weight and feel equally well considered; Playing House is a story about family, so it feels right that each player gets to have their feeling heard.
The episode provides a few particularly affecting moments worthy of mention: the sight of a whole police department supporting Maggie and Emma, Dr. Clive’s desperateness to thaw out his coldness so that he can hug Maggie, Emma’s concern that her surgeons don’t have any snacks. The stakes are high but the narrative doesn’t feel like it’s trading in unnecessary drama or hospital-genre clichés; everybody has a lot to lose, which reminds them all of how much they had in the first place.
St. Clair in particular deserves special mention for a quiet moment in what’s often a wonderfully loud performance; when she speaks to her surgeon, she explains that she can’t die because she has a daughter. Emma’s quick to correct herself, to reaffirm that Charlotte is Maggie’s daughter, but Maggie reinforces the idea that Emma is a mother. In that short interaction, St. Clair is able to express a lot of conflicting feelings — fear, confusion, pride and vulnerability — in a way that’s truly touching. Playing House‘s refusal to go too dark or melodramatic is admirable, and this episode is a fantastic example of how comedies can bring great depth to these plots.
Perhaps the greatest criticism I can level at the season is that its eight-episode structure feels too short. “Game of Tweens” is a fun, and surprisingly complex, retelling of Pride and Prejudice that raises an interesting question about inter-office romances, as well as pulling off a dreamy romantic gesture. This episode is also a reminder of just how much agency the female characters of Playing House are granted; when Maggie has an issue with Dr. Clive, she communicates it reasonably and makes sure that she protects her own emotions; the script never suggests that she’s hysterical or denying her instincts. Even in 2017, this still feels surprisingly progressive; Maggie knows what she wants, and what she’s willing to accept, without being characterised as either emotionless or overly prickly.
Appropriately, season three ends in a big camp celebration of womanhood and survival that feels like the perfect end to an emotional eight episodes. Emma and Maggie run around their hometown dressed like Tina Turner, getting themselves into the kind of trouble that breast cancer could’ve made impossible for them in an alternate, sadder future. Earlier in the season, a fellow cancer survivor (Lauren Weedman) promises Emma that if she survives the cancer, it’ll be as a better, more compassionate, and stronger person. It’s something that Emma doesn’t even seem ready to hear, let alone believe. By the closing moments of season three, however, Emma, and the audience, knows that it’s true.
The world of Playing House too has changed, and it’s very much for the better. It’s exceptionally kind-hearted and humane; a near-perfect model of comedy done right. One of the catchphrases that Emma and Maggie’s use is “sisters, have you heard, are doing it for themselves”. Playing House’s third season is proof, if anybody needed it, that sisters doing it for themselves means sisters doing it for each other, too.