Playing House, Season 2, Episode 5, “Employee of the Month”
Written by Anthony King
Directed by Stuart McDonald
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm (EST) on USA Network
“Employee of the Month” continues Playing House‘s trend of strong emotional episodes, as it deals with the aftermath of “Knotty Pine” and Mark and Tina’s decision to get a divorce. The episode is all about Mark’s tailspin, as he ends up crashing on Maggie and Emma’s couch, unable to address how much pain he’s in from the break-up. Maggie also realizes, after having a run-in with an old classmate, that her dream is to go back to nursing school. She feels called to this path, and yet is worried about how Emma will take the news. “Employee of the Month” is an episode about transition, as all the characters find themselves in the midst of change, wondering what the future will look like.
On some other shows, breaking up two characters is a monthly, maybe weekly occurrence, as the story barrels along through 22 episodes of a full network season. Such shows are uninterested in lingering with decisions, sacrificing emotional reality for shocking plot twists. Playing House is not like these other shows, though, not only because of its short eight-episode season, but also because of the way it treats its story and characters. The show’s continued strength is the way it grounds the characters in emotional truth. The show remembers what has happened to the characters, and is committed to telling a story about people, rather than a series of jokes strung together. The decision to break up Mark and Tina was a big storytelling move for the show, and made sense in the context of the characters and the world they inhabit. It opens up new story avenues for the show, complicates Emma’s previously straightforward love life, and showcases a model for support through difficult periods of life, all anchored by Keegan-Michael Key’s performance.
Emma and Mark’s long history together has been discussed since the show started, but never has it been so obvious they have a shared past than when the two play video games on the couch, Mark criticizing Emma’s sharp “shark toes.” Playing House is so great at these little moments of intimacy, which are at once incredibly specific and universally understandable. It’s easy to see why Emma is drawn to Mark and vice-versa: there’s a comfortable familiarity between them, a current friendship that has the possibility of opening back up into a relationship. Rabbi Dan, you never stood a chance against Keegan-Michael Key’s Murder, She Wrote-lovin’ cop. Emma and Mark might seem like a clear relationship endgame, but the way the show is playing out the slow rekindling of these two weirdos is keeping the storyline from feeling formulaic.
“Employee of the Month” takes great lengths to show that both Mark and Tina are hurt by the break-up, and Maggie and Emma support them both in their healing. This is another way that Playing House shows its investment in its characters: no one is a villain. Characters do complicated, frustrating, bad things, but no character is above empathy and understanding. Tina, for example, could have been Emma’s rival for Mark’s affections, but instead became “one of the girls,” her uptight nature creating a comedic foil for Emma, avoiding catty competition. Even last week’s “bad guy” Buck, who seduced married women, ended up breaking down and crying, ashamed of who he had become. Conflicts in the show come from personalities, or internal battles, or wacky scrapes, not malicious intent. There’s something old-school sitcom charming about the fact that every character gets to be a person, rather than an archetype.
Without any villains, Playing House could be boring, an idyllic portrait of small town life with no problems, no movement and no dynamism. However, by turning the story inward to explore Maggie’s decision to become a nurse, or Mark and Tina’s unhappiness, the show is relatable and real. Giant external forces, like tornadoes full of sharks, or powerful vampire clans, or asteroids hitting the earth, are exciting and splashy, but can be ultimately empty. The episode’s focus on grounded, personal stories, like relationships unraveling, the unwavering support of friends, and feeling scared in the midst of transitions, is fulfilling and the show at its best. With only three episodes to go before the end of the season, Playing House‘s continued delivery of little moments of emotional truth are what make this show worth watching.