There are not enough people in the world who mourned the loss of Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair’s NBC sitcom Best Friends Forever, but all of them and more should be excited for Playing House, a re-jiggering of their unbelievable chemistry for a slightly more grown-up premise, which airs on USA tonight at 10. Chemistry between two stars isn’t always enough to propel a show, but Parham and St. Clair undoubtedly have something special. They mentioned in my interview with them that USA had essentially asked for BFF, but different enough to have a new identity. Parham and St. Clair have delivered that while managing to make that exciting for even their devoted fans.
Parham and St. Clair have the kind of relationship you can’t fake, built up from years performing together at the UCB. While their characters were a little more heightened for BFF (which aired six episodes on NBC in the Spring of 2012 before being canceled), here they’re more obviously playing to their ages (mid-30s), while the plot situation is a little more heightened. St. Clair is Emma, an overworked executive trying to close some deal in China (there’s a few too many Chinese businessman jokes in the pilot, but luckily that’s the end of that). Parham is Maggie, her childhood best friend who still lives in the small town they grew up in, married and heavily pregnant. When Emma returns to throw her a baby shower, Maggie’s husband is revealed as having an online affair and, well, what we want to happen happens: Emma and Maggie resolve to live together and raise the baby together.
Playing House knows Emma and Maggie’s close relationship, especially when they’re such grown-ups, might seem weird, and it does everything it can to play around with that concept. The friends bring out the best in each other, but they can also reduce each other to the teenagers they once were. The second episode sees them reconnecting with a high-strung school friend (Lindsay Sloane) that they secretly mocked in the past—as old a sitcom trope as any, but Parham and St. Clair really make you believe they’ve known each other that long.
Playing House will certainly involve both its heroines in romantic shenanigans of one kind or another, but the central bond is the intense, if relaxed one between its two leads. In that way, it recalls one of my favorite shows, Gilmore Girls, especially with its small-town setting and plotline centered around a somewhat unconventional family situation.
This is exactly the kind of vibe USA should be aiming for as it makes a serious venture into comedy. Its first sitcom, Sirens, came and went without much fanfare, but Playing House is the kind of show to build a brand around. It’s being paired with Modern Family reruns, which is a very smart call, but Playing House really serves to replace the Gilmore Girls-sized hole in everyone’s hearts. With the decline of The WB, that kind of smart family-friendly comedy has been lacking from network TV, and NBC’s cheap efforts to aim for that demo forgot to be good this year.
Not to say that Playing House doesn’t have a nice little edge to it. St. Clair and Parham’s stroke of genius comes in their casting. The ensemble is drawn from the UCB comedy world, with Zach Woods playing Maggie’s brother and Keegan Michael Key (of Key and Peele) a frustrated local cop who went to high school with our heroes. Best of all, it seems each episode will have some brilliant comic filling a small-town kook role, potentially giving Playing House the kind of Stars Hollow ensemble of wackadoos to draw from for future seasons. Neil Casey’s B-plot as a garden-gnome obsessive in the second episode should be cheesy, but he’s such a talented performer that it manages to earn every laugh.
Playing House is not a laugh-a-minute affair, more of a heart-warmer that thrives on its characterization. It’s to the show’s credit that the first two episodes (which were provided to critics) are so watchable. Shows like this always grow and grow as your appreciation for the characters grow—Playing House is screaming with that kind of potential. Now it just needs to make sure it gets the audience it needs to get more of a chance than BFF ever did.