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Nat Faxon, Judy Greer (FX)
Nat Faxon, Judy Greer (FX)

Married: “Pilot”

Unconventional leads elevate a conventional premise

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Married

"Pilot"

Season 1, Episode 1

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The title of Married, FX’s new sort-of sitcom starring Nat Faxon and Judy Greer, couldn’t be more nondescript, nor could the premise. Faxon’s Russ and Greer’s are, well, married. They have kids. They don’t have sex much any more, a fact that Lina’s seemingly fine with, but which comically frustrates Russ, who’s relegated to sleeping on the sofa if he wants to masturbate. As far as sitcom pilots go, the phrase “married sitcom pilot” would apply to Married’s sitcom pilot accurately indeed, especially when the story veers off to follow a particularly contrived setup a few minutes in. And yet, I find myself excited to see where Married will go. There’s nothing unique about the template it’s built on, but it’s got a decidedly overqualified supporting cast, an intriguingly thoughtful tone, and a pair of leads whose spiky, offbeat talents invest even the worn-thin concept with an unusual energy.

Faxon and Geer have made their careers playing broader character roles than this. They’re both great at fashioning indelibly strange and hilarious weirdoes—Faxon’s niche has been for obnoxious motormouths (Mad Men, Party Down, a gentler version thereof on the sorely missed Ben and Kate), while Greer has staked out her territory playing loose cannons verging on madness (Arrested Development, Archer’s completely bonkers Cheryl/Carol). Building Married around two such personalities is the show’s secret weapon. Like their characters, the actors fit uneasily into such a conventional framework, which is what gives Married much of its appeal, and its potential. Faxon and Greer have been more at home in edgier, stranger stuff than this, and Russ and Lina, too, convey the sense that they remain outsiders, still attempting to make sense of the conventional roles they wake up in every day.

There’s a reason the “married, with kids” premise has been the go-to television setup since there was television. Most people get married (TV creators included) and most of those married people have kids, and the inexorable changes wrought thereby naturally become inspiration for stories. Unfortunately, those changes are generally of a piece, and the stories they engender, while unendingly fascinating to those undergoing them, tend to come out deadeningly similar to the rest of us. (Married, no kids here.) It’s a rare show that can take the idea that getting married and having children makes your life different and do something, well, different with it. (I wasn’t the only one who sighed in relief when Parks And Recreation decided to leap ahead and skip all those “new baby” stories, right?) Married, in its first episode at least, doesn’t exactly find a new angle on its protagonist couple’s dilemma, but by casting two actors who bring their signature intelligence to the enterprise, the show suggests that there’s some life in the concept yet.

Lina and Russ have tired eyes and the lived-in conversational style of two people who’ve known each other forever, but their expressions are subtly different kinds of exhausted. Russ’ are confused, and slightly embarrassed, while Lina’s forbearing, weary glances contain tinges of something like fear. In this first episode, Greer’s got the less-showy role, but her reactions to Faxon’s more active antics betray an affecting interior life that helps undercut the cliché of the scolding, sexless sitcom wife. Lina, for all her competence in getting the kids off to school (which is all she gets to do this time out, really) is clearly depressed. That’s what makes her seemingly offhand suggestion that Russ find someone else to take care of his sexual needs halfway believable. She says it with a shrug in her voice, but her mien convinces him, and us, that such an imperfect (and contrived) solution might be all she has to offer at this point. Russ is taken aback, and so, it seems, is she. (Interrupted by one daughter complaining that her sister hit her, Greer’s shouted command, “Then hit her back!” shocks everyone involved—the little girl stands for a moment in disbelief—before there’s a sharp cry offscreen. Greer’s “Which one was that?” earns a wry laugh.)

When Faxon heads off to the bar to commiserate with friends played by Jenny Slate and Brett Gelman, Greer’s position makes even more sense. Faxon has friends he can lay his problems off on. (John Hodgman turns up earlier as another, a happily married, copiously sexed-up imp whose advice tickles with Hodgman’s signature verbose irony.) Slate and Gelman only get a few minutes to set up their characters (she’s a former party girl who married a much older guy who’s boring her, he’s a divorcé pretending that a promiscuous sex life proves he’s over his ex), but they, too, succeed in suggesting both an inner life and a long friendship with Faxon. Slate, snapping off her knowing lines with authority, comes off especially well. In urging Faxon to take the license sort-of given to him to cheat, both Slate and Gelman walk the line between genuine advice and simply amusing themselves, the way that only good friends do. Far from the rote introduction of the protagonist’s kooky best pals, it’s a funny, fruitful dynamic, but it signals, again, Greer’s isolation. She gets an offscreen phone call from Hodgman’s wife later in the episode, but otherwise she’s alone with her daughters and her vampire novels in the pilot, making her exasperated response to Faxon’s complaints about their sex life (“I’m trying to make everyone happy and then at the end of the day I have to make you happy too?”) seem less like the hackneyed hectoring of a sitcom spouse and more like the genuine helplessness of a person running out of options.

Faxon’s Russ, meanwhile, almost accidentally starts exploring the possibility of having an affair, an extended plot thread I was surprised the show committed to. After Lina’s offer made Russ think she wanted to break up with him, the show had two ways to go—that the rest of the episode was devoted to seeing Russ nearly cheat with a pretty waxer was the one I thought least likely to be followed so completely. In one way, it’s disappointing—the relationship between Greer and Faxon had been drawn so well in such brief strokes that a standard plot like this one was jarring. It’s redeemed to the extent that it is by how Russ seems to simply fall into each successive level of infidelity with a sheepish, bemused self-awareness at the silliness of his escalating predicament. (Karolin Luna’s religious-yet-game lust interest Isis is the one character in the episode who seems to be visiting from a more standard sitcom.) Thankfully, this plotline is dropped after the pilot, but Faxon acquits himself well, diluting the Curb Your Enthusiasm squirm comedy with a more palatable beleaguered humanity. It’s just a bit more like Hall Pass than the rest of the show suggests.

Ultimately, Lina and Russ relate to each other like the ghosts of the fun couple they obviously once were. (Even the picture of Lina that pops up on Russ’ phone shows her looking happy and saucy.) Disappointments and humiliations (like Russ’ attempt to seduce his wife by dressing up like the vampire stars of her fantasy reading material) segue into banter that’s funny but effortful for both of them. (Russ kitted out in vampire garb is broad, sure, but the way he switches from Transylvanian to Canadian vampire trying to make Lina laugh speaks to the couple’s shared sense of humor.) Greer’s especially affecting as Lina plays along. Rising from her distracted annoyance to respond to Russ’ joke about only bringing home herpes instead of AIDS from his as-yet hypothetical affair, you can see the effort it takes—and how readily she retreats from it.

I’m afraid I’ve made Married sound more of a downer than it is—there are a lot of funny people and a fair amount of nimble laughs throughout. It’s just that, unlike most sitcoms about the inevitable disappointments and compromises of marriage and parenthood, Married knows the end of the half hour doesn’t mean the end of the problems.

Stray observations:

  • The rolling, plunking piece of music (by Jeff Cardoni) that recurs through the episode is just the right mix of whimsical and sad.
  • Even the brief appearance of Isis’ fearsome-looking ex Angel (actor’s name frustratingly unavailable at press time) is handled with surprising thoughtfulness. It’s not every t-shirted, tattooed tough guy supporting character who gets to muse on the capriciousness of fate with lines like, “It’s okay. I mean it isn’t, but it has to be, right? That’s the world.”
  • All the previews used the image of Russ riding a skateboard to suggest his status as “wacky manchild,” but in context it’s oddly sad. Faxon’s expression as he rides it desultorily to meet Hodgman’s Bernie is one of a guy employing something that used to be fun merely for transportation.
  • “Doggie’s my jam!”
  • Funny, sweet moment at a backyard fish funeral: “You make cute kids…except for this one.” “I know, whose kid is this.”
  • Hodgman’s best line, delivered grinning after delivering Russ $400, which he thinks is for a hooker: “If it is a whore, just promise me—don’t choke her. Don’t wanna get that call.”
  • After buying his prospective mistress a tiny squeak toy of a dog, Russ’ plan to tell Isis the dog was killed (with bloody prop and all) does seem a little psycho. 

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