Think back – if you can – to that wild Spring of 2012. You were a year out of college, still not sure what you were doing with yourself (not that you have any wider conception of that two years later). You were still listening to Lonely Island’s “Jack Sparrow,” even though it had been out since graduation. But you’re pretty entrenched in the improv community. Not in any concrete way, really just as an observer. You find out two great UCB veterans, Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, created and star in a brand new sitcom on NBC. Best Friends Forever, it’s called. Hell, you’ve heard of friends. Why not give the show a chance? So you do. For six episodes, before it is unceremoniously cancelled by the network (to be fair, it would be pretty awkward if networks ceremoniously cancelled shows). The show was good, not great, so you felt bad for its stars. Fast forward to present day. You are going about your business, still writing in a weird second person narrative that is pretty off-putting, when you find out the Parham/St. Clair combo has created a new show. This time for USA, a network where characters are welcome. This is a review of the first episode of that show.
I’ve been meaning to watch Playing House since it premiered at the end of April, but, as any adult knows, life gets in the way. The show once again stars Parham and St. Clair as long-time best friends, whose relationship borders on unhealthy. Playing House really could just be a sequel series to Best Friends Forever – even the opening credits are pretty similar – but that’s not a bad thing.
St. Clair’s Emma is a high-powered business woman (whatever that means) in Shanghai, whose best friend Maggie (Parham) is back in their hometown, very pregnant. Emma returns stateside to attend Maggie’s baby shower, and while there events conspire to keep Emma around longer than she was expecting. The show also stars Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele) as Emma’s ex and a local cop (they’re the same person – he’s not playing a dual role), Zach Woods as Maggie’s younger brother, and Brad Morris as Maggie’s husband.
Even the set-up is reminiscent of Best Friends Forever. St. Clair’s character is an anxious, awkward addition to a pre-established community, and Parham’s character acts as the grounded center she is attracted to. But the excellent chemistry between these two real-life best friends would make the show work, even of there weren’t substantial differences between the two series.
Those differences include the excellent supporting cast. There was nothing wrong with Luka Jones (Parham’s boyfriend), Stephen Schneider (St. Clair’s former flame), and Daija Owens (brash, outspoken younger character) in Best Friends Forever, but Playing House is operating on another level. Key has more than proven himself on his sketch show, and while his character here is more reserved, there are flashes of more out-there stuff evident in the pilot. Similarly, Woods was the MVP in a lot of later episodes of The Office, and he is an excellent improviser. Morris was the only unknown variable for me going into Playing House, and while his character is hard to like (purposefully), I’ll be damned if a couple of his line reads didn’t crack me up.
Most sitcoms take a few episodes to find their voice. Playing House starts strong in many ways because St. Clair and Parham are the driving forces behind the show. The pilot is still mostly set-up and exposition, so there is room for improvement, but I have no doubt it gets there as the season progresses. The small town setting will help with that – creating a personality for the setting that the show can build upon. It is kind of like Gilmore Girls in that regard, which I have never seen a full episode of, but feel like I can speak eloquently on regardless.
Do I feel foolish for waiting until a week after the first season of Playing House concluded to watch the pilot episode? A little. Luckily I’m not a Nielsen Family, so USA couldn’t care less if I watch or not. I’m going to watch anyway, because there is a ton of potential in the pilot, and even more potential for seeing some of my favorite LA-based comedians on television. Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair may have found a deeper vein of gold with Playing House, and I hope to dig it with them for the next few years.