'Playing House': Season Three Offers a Near-Perfect Blend of Humor and Drama

Maggie and Emma in the season premiere of Playing House.

Playing House's third season proves that "sisters doin' it for themselves" means sisters doin' it for each other, too.

Playing House

Airtime: Fridays, 11pm
Cast: Lennon Parham, Jessica St. Clair, Keegan-Michael Key
Subtitle: Season 3
Network: USA

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.