‘Playing House’: Best Friends Challenged By Cancer

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Photo: USA

The sitcom Playing House returns for a new season on Friday night, and star-creators Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair have crafted another fine batch of half-hours about the power of female friendship. And this time around, the comedy has a serious element, rooted in real life.

Don’t be confused or alarmed, however: For the most part, this is the Playing House you’ve either come to love or ought to be catching up with as soon as possible. Against the odds — one of the biggest being a lonely original sitcom on the USA network, home of Modern Family reruns and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit marathons — Lennon and Parham have attracted a fierce following for the way their translate their close pal-ship into the fictional lives of Maggie (Lennon) and Emma (St. Clair), two single-gal buddies living in suburban Connecticut.

This season, in addition to the continuing exploits of Maggie as a single mother to little daughter Charlotte, Keegan-Michael Key returns as Emma’s cop-boyfriend Mark, and we see a lot more about Maggie’s hospital job, where she interacts with a handsome but buttoned-up British doctor (played by Ben Willbond) who may or may not be attracted to her. Playing House is also good at finding ways to work in physical humor, whether that involves the women taking a self-defense class or playing basketball.

Mid-way through the season, however, a new theme is introduced, when Emma receives a diagnosis of breast cancer. The plot-line is based on St. Clair’s own bout with breast cancer, which first occurred in 2015. In Playing House, Emma’s usual never-ending stream of breezy joking is halted by the grim news, yet the show doesn’t lose control of the tone it wants to maintain. In a sense, introducing a serious sub-plot into Playing House isn’t a disruption, because this has never been a conventional sitcom anyway.

House thrives on making its narratives seem deceptively scattered — its two female creators are constantly critiquing the notion that women’s entertainment is somehow lighter or frothier (and by implication, lesser) than entertainment created by men. Within that context, this may be the best Playing House season yet.

Playing House airs Fridays at 11 p.m. on USA. The entire season will be available on VOD on June 24.

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