Playing House, Season 2, Episode 4, “Knotty Pine”
Written by Vera Santamaria
Directed by Stuart McDonald
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm (EST) on USA Network
“Knotty Pine,” the fourth episode of Playing House, marks the mid-point for the season and is the show’s finest installment, deftly moving between comedy and drama to deliver the best of both genres. The episode showcases the blossoming friendship between Tina, Maggie, and Emma, as they go on shopping dates and attend all-female woodworking classes. While the women’s friendship grows closer, Mark and Tina continue to drift apart. “Knotty Pine” culminates with an emotional conversation between Tina and Mark about the future of their relationship, a powerfully broken moment for a comedy, but one that feels completely at home in the world of Playing House.
While Playing House is a comedy, it is unlike other shows that pack a dense number of rapid-fire jokes into every scene. The show’s humor comes from placing characters into interesting or uncomfortable situations and seeing what happens. This “characters getting into scrapes” model for comedy seems to stem strongly from Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair’s improv background. Improv guides the show, as St. Clair and Parham first act out the scenes as all the characters in front of their writers, and the show is then written from their improvised scenes. Improv seems to give Playing House a more organic quality than other programs, and it feels lived-in rather than scripted. Characters on the show then seem more grounded in reality than the zany sitcom characters of previous shows.
One of Playing House‘s skills is the ability it has to juggle the sincere and silly moments that come up in the lives of its characters. This mesh of drama and comedy has always been a part of the DNA of the show, as the first episode dealt with Maggie finding out her husband had been cheating on her, the catalyst for both Emma moving in to raise the baby and Playing House as a show. The show’s first season was full of moments that blended drama and comedy, including Emma and Maggie’s memorable heart-to-heart in the pilot that took place in a tiny playhouse in the backyard, bookended by a raccoon attack. Even last week’s episode “Cashmere Burka” balanced these two elements well, discussing fear of failure while also making jokes about bad chicken salad. The best comedies can include moments of drama and not have them seem out of place, and Playing House is one of the best television comedies.
“Knotty Pine” is the show at its most honest and silliest, starting with Rob Riggle’s star turn as Buck, a sexually charged woodworking instructor who preys on women in unhappy marriages with his well-fitting plaid shirts. Riggle gleefully devours the role, basically playing an evil version of Channing Tatum’s character in Magic Mike XXL, with 93% less dancing. He pays special attention to Tina, a huge red flag for Maggie and Emma, who warn Tina that Buck might want to do more than just help her identify different kinds of wood. Tina and Mark, who have been unhappy together since the day Playing House introduced them as characters, spend most of “Knotty Pine” separated, and seem content in their time apart from one another. It isn’t until Mark stumbles upon Buck and Tina kissing at a bar that he and Tina are forced to confront the realities of their relationship.
The scene is small, broken, and arrestingly real. In a dark parking lot outside of a local bar, Mark and Tina admit to one another that they’ve been pretending everything in their marriage is working, and agree to stop pretending. It’s not loud, or played for laughs, it’s a moment of vulnerability honestly captured on screen. And this honesty doesn’t negate the previous silly dancing or Emma’s inability to build a birdhouse in “Knotty Pine.” The fact that the scenes can all exist together in an episode enriches the show as a whole.
A small shout-out to Keegan-Michael Key, who does incredible work conveying Mark’s deep sadness in “Knotty Pine.” He brings so much to Playing House that’s different from his energy on Key & Peele and his guest roles in other shows, and hopefully he’ll continue to get leading roles that match his talent. We’re living in the Keegan-Michael Key renaissance; may it last a really long time.
So Playing House, it turns out, is not only a story about friendship and small town life, but also the realities of divorce. Mark and Tina’s relationship problems have been well-documented by the show, but it doesn’t make the disillusion of their marriage any less tragic or surprising. “Knotty Pine” manages to tell a story about divorce while also packing in more woodworking innuendos per minute than any other comedy on television, and that amazing balance of comedy and drama is something worth celebrating.