Like a lot of premises for Married episodes, Russ’ dilemma in “Invisible Man,” (he’s afraid of becoming invisible to women as a sexual object) isn’t anything new. When Russ is aghast at the fact that a young woman blithely changes out of her bikini top in front of him (while he paddles with his daughter in a public pool), it recalls a similar revelation that occurred to Timothy Busfield’s similarly arrested adult Elliot way back on thirtysomething. (“I’m invisible to teenage girls!”) In that intervening quarter-decade or so, the plot of the frustrated husband chafing under the supposed neutering effects of aging and fatherhood and husband-hood has reared its head in—I’m just guessing here—75 percent of every TV show involving a married man.
It’s understandable that the idea crops up so regularly (especially since most shows historically are dominated, both in front of and behind the cameras, by men)—men worry about that sort of stuff. And, speaking as something of an arrested manchild myself, the fears of time passing, of opportunities being closed off gets sweatily conflated, in our man-brains, with all of the “other women” that we’re never going to sleep with. The test Married keeps setting itself is to take a played-out TV situation, dust it off, and do something more interesting with it. “The Invisible Man” sees the show fumble the effort this time out—but interestingly.
Running throughout the episode is the idea that kids represent the death of something in us. For Jess, it’s her youth as the wild party girl she sort-of stopped being when she married the much-older Shep. When the teenaged singer Tammy bails on Shep’s arranged recording session because she’s pregnant, Jess’ reaction is immediate (and, in Jenny Slate’s performance, both hilarious and deeply sad). “Tell her to get rid of it!,” she snaps immediately upon hearing the news, urging Shep to concoct stories about Liz Phair and/or P.J. Harvey doing the same in order to ensure their success. Slate and Paul Reiser’s half of the episode (technically the B-story) is deeply affecting—apart from John Hodgman’s Bernie (absent again this week), Married’s supporting characters keep getting more time to shine. It enriches the show’s world, especially as Slate and Reiser continue to play out their cliché pairing so subtly. Their scene at the end of the episode is quietly devastating, Slate passing off their son’s bath to Reiser with a cold brush-off that expresses her deep disappointment, both at Shep’s unwillingness to browbeat the girl (and thus get back to work), and her own decisions that have saddled her with an old husband and young son. The show’s laid in the couple’s shared dissatisfaction throughout, but on a traditional sitcom, the joke would be played out in perpetuity. Married has an end game in mind for its characters and, as her final action strongly suggests, for Jess and Shep it’s not a happy one.
As for Russ and Lina, while they leave the episode laughing (Russ’ sex fantasy gigglingly bargained down to “Ralph’s cashier and woman trying to return old lettuce”), they, too, continue to channel quiet desperation inside their wackier sitcom stories. This week, Russ’ follow-up visit to have his post-vasectomy ejaculate checked introduces a trio of comic setpieces which, while tilting the show’s balance too far into contrivance at times, yet provide Nat Faxon and Judy Greer opportunity to shade in their characters further.
It’s offputting when Russ browbeats his doctor’s beleaguered receptionist Deedee (Carlease Burke) because he can’t afford the co-pay for the final appointment that will give him the all-clear to start having unprotected sex with Lina. On another show, the whole “being rude to the authority figure” idea would be presented uncritically. Here though, as with Lina’s similar confrontation with the dentist’s assistant in “Uncool,” Married doesn’t expect viewers to find Russ’ comic manipulations all that laudable. The Bowmans’ problems are those of people unwilling to accept their situation. They’re relatively poor, but live according to the middle class roles they think they’re entitled to. Sure, everyone should have the right to elective procedures like vasectomies, braces, and exorbitant vet bills (I still can’t get over the $5000 for that dog’s broken leg), but the fact that Russ and Lina continually make their life choices other peoples’ problems is telling. I hate to use the cliché “white people problems” here, but Married has subtly made it explicit that its main characters are operating from a place of privilege they’re only partly aware of.
So when Russ does his comedy routines at Deedee’s expense—bullying his way into the appointment, complaining about the clinic’s porn selection, and, most inappropriately, handing his triumphant sperm sample to her with a jokey flourish—it’s uncomfortable, but it’s supposed to be. Faxon’s a funny guy (and his performance at the doctor’s office recalls some of his broader work on the still-missed Ben And Kate), but Russ’ behavior in the scene borders on reprehensible. All along, Married has been attempting a tricky tonal balancing act, and while here Russ’ extended bit might wobble on that high wire, at least there’s further motivation to it than “wacky manchild plays to the crowd.” Lina’s usually the one who has to deal with the real world ramifications of the couple’s financial woes, so when Russ finally has to do so, he’s terrible at it. Lacking the bill-dodging skills his laid-back approach to reality has forced Lina to develop, he comes off as boorish.
Lina gets her sitcom story as well—the “mother who can’t let go of all the baby stuff” subplot. Except that here, too, Married goes the less-obvious route, offering Greer another chance to imbue Lina with the barely-concealed desperation that’s become her signature trait. It’s the least effective of the three storylines tonight, although it does deliver another in the succession of morbidly funny Married lines. Asked how much all the baby stuff cost her, Lina replies “My youth—and every time I cough, I pee a little.” Greer continues to find the comic sweet spot in exasperated exhaustion—from anyone else, her later line, “It’s official. No more babies. Now I have to figure out my life” would sound glib. From Greer, it resonates. And while Lina’s reluctant-but-vocal telephone efforts to “bring [Russ] home” in the middle of a thrift store are the sort of big comedy moment that smack of contrivance (the whole “saying inappropriate things in public” gag is something Married keeps returning to), Greer performance is both game and subtle in the center of it. (The way Greer idly flips the pages of a coffee table book while supposedly in the throes of erotic imagination is masterful.)
When Russ can’t bring himself to climax unless he imagines impregnating Lina, she jerks out of the fantasy immediately in horror. Russ’ fear of having “meaningless semen” and his desperate need to still feel “dangerous” to women manifests itself in fantasies of potency (and a finger up his butt). Lina muses ambivalently at losing her reproductive role in the world, yet the slightest idea that she and Russ will have another child viscerally repulses her, even as she understands her husband’s need for the fantasy. In keeping with the show’s dedication to taking its characters down the roads they least want to go (and Russ’ general indifference to detail with regards to his semen—“I eyeballed it”), the idea of an unwanted pregnancy in the Bowman’s future introduces itself, worryingly here. And in keeping with how well the show and its absurdly talented cast depict the characters’ reaction to life’s disappointments (and possibly my own perverse pleasure in seeing Greer portray Lina’s pain), that would be interesting to see.
“Invisible Man” has more parts that don’t work than any episode since the pilot, and yet it does work. Each episode of Married uses its premise to illuminate how the hackneyed minutiae of sitcoms—which are only so familiar because they’re drawn from the minutiae of real life—affect the characters. And the effects are cumulative. As Shep and Jess’ story shows tonight, Married clearly has a plan—there’s going to be a reckoning, for everyone. AJ’s the womanizer best pal—but Married is taking him to somewhere like the character’s logical terminus. And as for Russ and Lina—we’ll see. But it’s not looking like it’s anywhere they want to end up.
- Brett Gelman’s A.J. only gets a few lines in the episode but, as his disturbingly detailed rape scenario suggests, he, too, is headed somewhere more darkly interesting than the traditional “oversexed funny single guy.” He’s like How I Met Your Mother’s Barney if all that booze and self-loathing actually had any realistic effects.
- “It’s practically clear. Seriously, you could store contact lenses in it.”
- “She has the talent of a much uglier girl.”
- “Tell her having kids is going to ruin her life.” “So our little baby boy is ruining your life?” “No, you’re ruining my life.” Ow.
- The doctor, handing a vial to Russ: “Only one thing to do.” “Shots?”
- That doctor’s office is too designed for comic effect. Would the clearly marked “sample room” be located so close to both Deedee’s desk and the waiting room unless it’s to overhear Russ’ Jason Biggs-style masturbatory antics?
- “Can I just say, a lot of the shit that comes out of your mouth cannot go back in.” Reiser remains a revelation on this show, Married finding the perfect note of soulfulness in his signature comic delivery.
- That’s the song “Needles” from the band The Pack A.D. playing under Jess’ final scene. It’s even more quietly devastating when you listen to the lyrics. (Again, Married—not your average sitcom.)