Playing House, Season 2, Episode 3, “Cashmere Burka”
Written by Gavin Steckler
Directed by Stuart McDonald
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm (EST) on USA Network
“Cashmere Burka,” the third episode of Playing House, tackles the dramatic arts this week as it expands on the importance of being true to one’s self in relationships, romantic and otherwise. Gwen (Jane Kaczmarek), Emma’s mother, writes a play about her experiences growing up, and is nervous as all get-out to present it to the public. At the same time, Emma starts dating Dan, the cute guy carrying bread she met at the end of the second episode, who’s played by a winsome Kyle Bornheimer (that guy in everything, now in Playing House). Both Emma and Dan are worried about what other people will think of their relationship. Between interesting pronunciations of the word “wet” and an overabundance of scarves, “Cashmere Burka” is an episode that continues the show’s investment in the strong ensemble they’ve assembled.
The story this week focuses on the staging of Cashmere Burka at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Pinebrook, a great excuse to have smaller characters from the first season come back in an organic way. Candy (Marissa Jaret Winokur), the bartender at local hotspot Rosie’s, and Ian (Ian Roberts), one of Mark’s buddies on the police force, feature in the ensemble of the play. This recurrence of characters adds to Playing House‘s growing identity as a small-town show: just like in a small town, the people who live there are involved with various aspects of daily life. So bringing back side characters to play the ensemble in an episode, or quick scenes at Rosie’s, or the long and tumultuous story about chicken salad that Emma tells, all work towards making Pinebrook feel like a lived-in place.
Even this week’s focus on Gwen is a great example of that. Last season, Gwen acted as a foil for Emma, as Gwen had firmly planted her identity in living in Pinebrook, and Emma had done everything in her power to get away from her suffocatingly small hometown. Returning home to help Maggie raise her baby had brought Emma into contact with all of the things she missed out on when she decided to leave, including a meaningful relationship with her mother. Once Emma and Gwen had come to a begrudging understanding about one another in the first season, Playing House could have easily tossed out Gwen as a character, because she had served her main narrative purpose. The smart thing about the show, though, is that it understands (unlike a lot of other modern sitcoms) that in real life, mothers don’t go away tidily after they’ve solved an issue with their child. They’re still an active part of their child’s life, especially in Gwen’s case, as her and Maggie’s long-standing friendship was also established last season.
Through portraying parts of small town life accurately, and the show’s attention to detail, Playing House gets to invent zany situations that are grounded in reality. Mark’s increasingly hilarious shirt necklines in “Cashmere Burka” is exactly one such situation. The reasons Mark has to wear all these shirts are deeply based in his and Tina’s marriage problems, but Tina demanding that he experiment with necklines is a deeply nonsensical request. Also, shout-out to the costuming department who chose that last black number for Keegan-Michael Key to wear, which looked like a clearance item from the women’s party section of Forever 21.
Small moments, like Emma and Dan bonding over their mutual enjoyment of cheese, or Emma’s dramatic line readings for her role in the play, call back to season one in a way that shows Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham’s deep love for the characters and world they’ve created in Playing House. And the third act of “Cashmere Burka” acts as a thesis for Parham and St. Clair as creators who pour themselves into their work, as Maggie gives Gwen a pep talk before the opening of the play.
“Women like Betty Gilbert, you know what they do? They sit back and watch wait for other people to take risks, and then they judge them. But you are putting yourself out there, and that is super-scary and awesome,” Maggie says to Gwen, celebrating women who are vulnerable and express their true selves, a powerful message to share in a television show. It’s as much a pep talk as it is a defiant statement of purpose for Playing House. Critics can sit on the sidelines and judge someone for taking risks, but in the end it’s the risk-takers that grow and learn about themselves, and are better for it.
“Cashmere Burka” has little details that continue to bring Parham and St. Clair’s vision of an encouraging, tight-knit community to life. Television is better with these two deeply encouraging, wonderfully silly women on every week.