Splitsider

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham Are Back and Better Than Ever in USA's 'Playing House'

Over the weekend, the USA network debuted the first episode of its new show Playing House online ahead of its TV premiere next week. Playing House is the second show created by and starring Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair (preceded by their short-lived but critically-acclaimed 2012 NBC sitcom Best Friends Forever), and it's even sharper than the first with a pilot episode that's packed with jokes and an eclectic cast of busy, talented comedy people.

Playing House stars Parham and St. Clair as a pair of childhood best friends, Maggie and Emma respectively, who are reunited. Emma is a successful international businesswoman who returns to her hometown for Maggie's baby shower but ends up leaving her career behind to move in with Maggie and help her raise her unborn child. They're surrounded by a strong supporting cast that includes Key & Peele's Keegan-Michael Key as Emma's police officer ex-boyfriend Mark, Silicon Valley's Zach Woods as Maggie's wimpy friend Zach, and Cougar Town's Brad Morris as Emma's no-good husband Bruce.

Sitcom pilots usually have a lot going against them, tasked with introducing their characters, getting out exposition, and demonstrating what a normal, non-pilot episode of the show will be like, all while being funny throughout, in just 22 minutes. Playing House's first episode manages to accomplish all of these things, avoiding the pitfalls that plague most other half-hour pilots by keeping exposition light and packing the script with jokes. There still is plenty of story and backstory to Playing House, but it moves along at such a fast clip that it doesn't make the show feel as pilot-y as it should. And unlike other shows that have the same rapid-fire joke machine nature that Playing House does, it's not afraid to get real and emotional, making it feel three-dimensional in a way that a lot of sitcoms aren't.

Playing House has a lot of similarities to Parham and St. Clair's previous show, Best Friends Forever. They're both about close friends moving in together to help one another during challenging points in their lives, but Playing House is slightly higher-concept than its predecessor, with more of a hook and a bigger, more fun world built around the main characters that will be fun to explore in future episodes. Snagging Keegan-Michael Key and Zach Woods in the off-season from their other hit cable comedies is also a smart move, and it's cool to see both of them balancing two shows and getting to play types of characters here that we don't usually get to see them play.

Like any good pilot, Playing House sets up a strong framework for future episodes, with plenty of possibilities for its characters in subsequent installments. I'm curious to see how Brad Morris's character Bruce continues to be a part of the show following the events of the pilot, but he's definitely a standout in a cast full of standouts. Morris's big scene midway through the episode is one of its highlights and a new twist on a subject we've seen a lot in other comedies. With USA expanding into comedy this year with Playing House, it's great to see the network is capable of making a show that, so far, is as strong as most new shows from networks that are more experienced in comedy.