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Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

'Playing House's Balance of Humor and Heart Makes It One of the Best New Comedies of the Year

playing houseComedic duos are thriving right now (as we recently highlighted), bringing everything from absurdist sketch to buddy movies to a new level. No comedy pair, however, represents true friendship both on and off screen like Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham. They've long been reliable sources of laughter during joint podcast appearances and in the six episodes of their 2012 sitcom Best Friends Forever that aired before NBC pulled the plug, proving that they could hold their own during a half-hour sitcom. Now in USA's Playing House, their second chance to bring their friendship to the masses, they've created a perfect combination of solid jokes and genuine heart that will, God willing, keep them on the air for seasons to come.

Starting off with a similar concept to the short-lived BFFs, Emma (St. Clair) finds herself moving in with Maggie (Parham), but this time Parham's character has found herself nearly nine months pregnant with a cheating husband and no one to help raise her baby. Enter Emma, who quits her high-powered job to return to the small town they were raised in to help out Maggie while confronting a host of characters from her past. From the very start, it seems as if we're just watching Parham and St. Clair in real life; their natural chemistry and ability to riff off each other feels unscripted in the best ways possible. And that includes the more emotional moments. What would in a normal series feel as deep as an after school special sitcom trope feels completely genuine in the hands of this real life pair of best friends. They truly love each other, making the sweet moments unusually bearable.

In part one of last night's two-episode finale, "Let's Have a Baby," we get a glimpse of how Emma and Maggie's love is seen to others. Maggie goes into labor, and while in the hospital her gorgeous, cool OB-GYN assumes the two to be a lesbian couple. It's no wonder she feels that way; the pair's relationship has, over the course of the first season, developed from best friendship to domestic partnership, and this was the perfect way to highlight that to the outside world. While the show primarily comes from the perspective of Emma and Maggie, it always finds itself most entertaining when the host of supporting small town characters steps in to comment on their relationship and unusual turn of events in their lives. Supporting cast members Keegan-Michael Key, Brad Morris, and Zach Woods are the perfect trifecta through whom to better flesh out the central pair, each with their own insight on the relationship and personal quirks that provide an explanation as to why Emma and Maggie are the way that they are.

Key, Morris, and Woods play Emma's high-school-boyfriend-turned-cop, Maggie's ex-husband, and Maggie's brother respectively. The relationships are deeply established in the first few episodes, filling out the world in which the two main characters exist. Key and St. Clair awkwardly tiptoe around their history, Morris starts out as a cheating scumbag but transforms into a lovable doofus, and Woods, with all his slam poetry and shaman eccentricities, just really loves his sister and becomes a key part of the birthing process. Along with these three regulars, there are comedic tour de forces who pop in and out throughout the season, including Jane Kaczmarek as Emma's dysfunctional mother, Lindsay Sloane as Key's "bird-boned" wife, and Andy Daly as Maggie's divorce lawyer/Emma's date. All these supporting characters shine in their own right, but all while servicing the central relationship; the show never loses sight of who the story is really about. 

The second episode of the finale, "Bugs in Your Eyes," addressed the biggest hurdle this series will face: the introduction of the baby. St. Clair says it all in the first few minutes of the episode, "Remember when you were pregnant, and we went on all sorts of crazy adventures?" Based in the world they've created, actually caring for a child had the potential of changing the dynamic of the show from wacky best friend sitcom to two whacky best friends simply talking about all they would be doing should they not have to care for this, admittedly adorable, bundle of joy. But here's hoping they're able to keep up for the next season what they accomplished in this episode — the baby fits seamlessly into their absurdist examination of small town life, and neither the jokes nor the emotional core suffer from baby Charlotte's addition to the cast.

Playing House's first season was perfect in that each episode was better than the last, showing a positive comedic and emotional trajectory as Parham and St. Clair went from reunited best friends to new moms pretending they know exactly how to raise a baby. While there is a risk in adding an actual child to the central plot in the next season, in these final episodes the duo has shown that they more likely have the potential for even greater laughs, heart, and success in the future.

Brianna Wellen is a writer in Chicago who loves television, podcasts, and whiskey.

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