April 30, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Playing House”


PLAYING HOUSE:  Tuesday 10PM on USA – If Nothing Else Is On…

Created by and starring real-life best friends Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham, PLAYING HOUSE is, as sisterhood comedies created by and starring real-life best friends go, less edged and genuine than HBO’s recent Doll & Em (which was the work of Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells).  Rather, Playing House feels remarkably like Best Friends Forever, the short-lived NBC comedy also created by and starring St. Clair and Parham.

Playing House slightly twists the premise of Best Friends Forever, as set out in the pilot (written by St. Clair and Parham and directed by Jeffrey Blitz) aired tonight by USA as the first of back-to-back episodes.  In Best Friends, the Parham character’s relationship had fallen apart, and she traveled across the country to stay with best friend St. Clair; here Emma (St. Clair) is a high-powered executive who lets her job go to move to their Connecticut hometown and stay with her oldest friend Maggie (Parham), who’s 8 months pregnant and whose marriage to Bruce (Brad Morris) promptly falls apart.  The only other regular appears to be Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), Emma’s high school boyfriend who’s now the town sheriff and married to Tina (Lindsay Sloane), whom the girls used to ridicule as “Bird Bones” in high school.  The night’s second episode, credited to Anthony King and directed by Jamie Babbitt, centers on a brunch Emma and Maggie have with Tina, in the course of which Tina’s insecurities and idiosyncracies emerge (she buys and hoards goods from QVC), bonding the three women together.  (Zach Woods shows up in the pilot as Maggie’s brother with a crush on Emma, but he’s a regular on Silicon Valley and isn’t in Episode 2, so it’s not clear how much he’ll be around.)

It’s not that Playing House feels improvised–on the contrary, it appears to be tightly scripted, in an often broadly sitcommy way–but its scant characters and lengthy scenes make its pace seem to lag in the way that semi-improvised comedies often do; it has the feel of a show that’s aiming at plumbing its characters’ depths, but instead the characters start out superficial and stay that way.  The plotting is simplemindedly silly (in the pilot, Maggie discovers that her husband has been Skype-ing with German women who share his fetish of inserting objects in various orifices–plus there’s a running gag about racoons; the 2d episode’s B story involves Mark solving the mystery of lawn gnomes stolen by a mischievous teen named Joffrey), and the scripts have a tendency to hammer jokes into the ground.

Unlike Doll & Em, which once it got past its own gimmicky premise was intent on illuminating the complicated boundaries of longtime friendship, Playing House doesn’t seem to have much on its mind besides being amiable.  (You might wish the series had just turned on the cameras when the cast had drinks together, rather than bothering with scripts.)  There’s no real conflict in either of the initial episodes:  Emma barely seems to miss or regret the loss of her career, Maggie all but forgets that she ever had a husband as soon as he’s gone, the pregnancy might as well be a strategically placed pillow, and no sooner has Tina discovered that Emma and Maggie were her nemeses in high school (it makes little sense that she didn’t know who they were back then, but whatever) that they’re instantly buddies.  It’s the kind of sunny outlook on life that Hart of Dixie has, but without that show’s romantic intrigues or extended ensemble cast.

St. Clair and Parham seem like the kind of mildly off-center comic talents who should thrive on cable, but Playing House is an extremely odd fit for USA (much more so than the network’s other half-hour Sirens), a poky sitcom that seems intended as a companion for USA’s Modern Family reruns without anything like that show’s wit and tight structure.  It may be that another, smaller network lies in the pair’s future.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."