[This is a review of Married season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Last year at this time, FX premiered the summertime comedies Married and You're the Worst. At first glance the two series seemingly had a lot in common, and their paring in an hour-long block of TV-MA comedy made a lot of sense. Both series took a candid look at the roller coaster-like ups and downs one experiences in relationships old and new. While Stephen Falk's twisted and cynical, but ultimately very sweet look at a burgeoning romance between two miserable misanthropes soared to new heights with each passing episode (becoming one of my favorite series of last year, and subsequently landing on FXX in the fall), Andrew Gurland's marriage-is-hell single-camera sitcom was more content to recycle familiar bits of relationship comedy and dress them up with an "I can't believe they said that on TV edge."
That may have been a bold approach if the series were on network television – or it had premiered 10 years ago. The problem in this day and age of nearly-anything-goes programming was that the jokes about an oversexed husband played by Nat Faxon and his perpetually tired, put-upon wife, played by the always-wonderful Judy Greer, felt as stale as decade-old Saltines. But it wasn't just that the jokes about a husband's sexual dissatisfaction in his marriage were so familiar you could finish a punch line before the setup even began; it was the way the series plopped its characters down into such rote gender roles without exploring the notion of being self-referential or questioning why it is Russ (Faxon) and Lina (Greer) fit so easily into those mundane slots. It was as though the series had never seen a movie, sitcom, or commercial that dared to depict a couple as not having the perfect relationship.
Thankfully, as the season wore on, Married seemed to correct course, mostly dropping the tired "my wife won't have sex with me" routine in favor of spending more time with its phenomenal supporting cast, headed up by Jenny Slate, Brett Gelman, and a laid back performance by Paul Reiser. Gelman's drug-addled AJ turned out to be a terrific showcase for the actor's manic brand of comedy, while in turn, Slate's performance as Jess, the more-than-just-a-trophy-wife to Reiser's Shep, gave the actress a chance to put some depth in a role that could easily have been one dimensional. It also shifted Russ and Lina's relationship woes away from the bedroom and more towards their bank account – another location getting used to a marked decrease in the kind of action it was meant to service.
So, when the second season begins with 'Thanksgiving,' it is a little frustrating to see the series once again rely on familiar sitcom tropes that are touched up in mostly superficial ways.
The premiere sees Russ and Lina again up to their elbows in sex talk, but this time the conversation swirls around her mother Janice (Frances Conroy) and stepfather Ed (M.C. Gainey), and questions of Ed's impropriety, given that Janice suffers from dementia. The episode mercifully doesn't try to squeeze comedic blood from the stone that is Janice's condition, so instead it ventures into an uncomfortable dynamic of children having to have The Sex Talk with their parents. It's an unexpected choice for the series to make, one that is strengthened by an earlier scene in which husband and wife handle their young daughter's inappropriate attire with an adroit series of insults and insinuations. This is the sort of supportive spousal interplay that felt daring and unconventional when exhibited in the latter episodes of season 1, and its inclusion here is a similarly welcome breath of fresh air.
And yet, instead of doubling down on the elements that work, 'Thanksgiving' soon settles back into a familiar routine and never bothers to explore more compelling aspects, like Lina's conflicting emotions about caring for her mother and the man who replaced her father. And the promising discomfort of having to talk with one's elders about engaging in responsible sex is reduced to a single moment between Faxon and Gainey where rapid-fire double entendres disappointingly let the characters and the audience off the hook.
Even more disappointing is the way Slate and Gelman are reduced to navigating the well-worn plot thread of new parents trying to get their child into an exclusive preschool. This again points to Married's lack of self-awareness, in that if it were trying to mine some untapped comedic resource about a parent's urge to give a three-year-old a leg up on his diaper-wearing competition, the B-plot might have worked – or at least had something new to say. Instead, the scenario just felt trite and dated, feelings that were compounded by the fact that AJ was integral to the success of Jess' child, but was initially shunned by her and Shep because of his shady past.
Such easy comedy can work when the cast is this talented, but Married can only get by on the abilities of its performers for so long. And soon enough, the expectations of what people like Greer, Slate, and Gelman (and a network like FX) can deliver will surpass the sort of underdeveloped material they're being handed. Yes, this is the network that gave a green light to the loathsome Partners and Anger Management, but Married is in a different class of comedy – or at least it feels like it should be.
As the season continues, hopefully it will course correct as it did in the past. There's untapped potential in this could-be-clever sitcom. Let's all hope it doesn't continue to play down our expectations.
Married continues next Thursday with 'Aftershocks' @10:30pm on FX.
Photos: Prashant Gupta/FX