One of the boldest moves Married is making in its early episodes is allowing its characters to be unlikable. Not Larry David curmudgeon unlikable or flat out anti-hero unlikable, but everyday unlikable. When, in the opening scene of “Uncool,” Lina attempts to brush off the dental receptionist’s demand for payment until after her daughter’s appointment only to have the receptionist say, “Not this time,” the audience is conditioned to find the receptionist the jerk in the situation. Lina’s one of the show’s protagonists, after all, so she must be in the right. Except that it’s clear Lina’s pulled the same maneuver before, and that the lady doing her job playing gatekeeper isn’t some heartless bureaucrat—she’s just a lady doing her job.
It’s unusual for an American sitcom to deal with money in any serious way. Being broke might be a condition for a sitcom family, but on a show like Roseanne, to cite a rare example, the family’s poverty marks them as loveable underdogs. The Bowmans have been established as having money troubles—but Married isn’t portraying them as heroes because of them. Instead, Russ and Lina’s separate adventures in financial finagling in “Uncool” stem from the show’s depiction of the couple as the screwed-up people they are—and while sympathetic to their plight, the show uses the bind they’re in to deepen our understanding of them. And make a few surprisingly honest points about class and race along the way.
Faced with the sudden need to have daughter Ella’s braces tightened (otherwise “they’re just metal in her mouth!” exclaims Lina), both Lina and Russ make plans to raise some cash. Russ is to make the uncomfortable appeal to pal Bernie (John Hodgman) for some money Russ is owed (we find out this episode that Russ does graphic design work), while Lina—much more reluctantly—agrees to meet with her old boss (Jason Kravits). The exchange here is packed with small details about the couple’s past and relationship (again, I like that the show is taking its time in that regard), and each new revelation allows Nat Faxon and Judy Greer to fill in more of their characters’ feelings about where they are with revealingly wounding comic sparring.
A tradition of Married so far is that each episode contains one line that pulls the characters involved—and the audience—up short. Tonight, it’s Lina’s turn, and it’s a doozy. Pressured by Russ to go back to her hated but lucrative payroll company job, Lina eventually accedes, saying, “I hate you. [Pause.] I don’t hate you. I just hate my life. And my life is you.” (There’s a laugh line after it, but still.)
Married is at its heart a comic examination of what happens to two people who love each other but are constantly tested by the world’s relentless assertion that they aren’t any good at being grown-ups. Lina’s sacrifice here is by far the larger of the two, and her visceral revulsion at the prospect of returning to that old job provides Greer with some real comic energy. (When Jenny Slate’s Jess, along for moral support, tries to urge her on, Lina’s jabbering deferral, “I should go back to school. I think I should take the MCAT or the LSAT or the GMAT. I should just cancel this lunch and take a Kaplan course” is funny, but Greer brings out the panicky desperation underneath the bit Lina’s doing.)
There’s been criticism lobbed at Married that Russ gets off the hook for being the “irresponsible goofball dad” character, but it’s clear the show is fully aware of the imbalance in the couple’s relationship—and so are the characters. When Russ complains to Bernie, “I feel like all the pressure’s on me. If we can’t afford something then it’s automatically my fault,” it’s stereotypical TV husband talk. But when we find out that Lina had supported Russ while he got “his shit together,” and Russ responds, “I did—for a while,” Faxon’s signature toothy sheepishness says a lot. These aren’t two people unaware of the sexual politics of traditional gender roles in marriage—these are two people who both understand that they’re in a mess, and that sometimes in a relationship, someone’s going to get the crappy end of the deal.
Of the two capers that bedtime talk engenders, Russ’ is the weaker, although hardly without laughs. Hodgman’s fifth in line on the show at this point, and his character the broadest, although Hodgman’s twinkly irony as the most happily married of the gang provides an endearingly oddball counterpoint. When he and Russ enlist the help of Lobo Sebastian’s Angel to help collect on their debt from some fratboys, however, there’s no reasonable explanation for Angel’s presence. Here’s to not belaboring plot, but how would Russ get the ex-boyfriend of the woman he almost slept with in the pilot to come play muscle? And why would Angel agree? I’m all for Sebastian returning—his brief role in the pilot was unexpectedly nuanced—but his presence here smacks of contrivance, and while Angel’s again given more shades than the “scary Latino guy” stereotype he appears to be, his new trait—being obsessed with his 12 step program—is a lot less interesting.
As for Russ, his increasingly frantic pursuit of his money leads him into the sort of broad comic behavior Faxon’s played elsewhere, it sets the tone wobbling. The whole frat arena is too broadly written, and when Russ reacts to the bros’ rampant sexist douchery by ranting about how he needs the money to fix his daughter’s teeth “so some douche like you can jizz all over her face some day,” Faxon’s manic energy is too much. (The same goes for the college girls who tell the strange old guy some very specific sexual details.) Married plays the “too caught up in the moment to rein myself in” card too often—here, its contrast with Russ’ genuine offense at the frat jerks’ sexism throws the show’s sensibility off balance.
Lina’s outing, on the other hand, benefits from being broader, allowing Greer to bring some character to an outwardly silly scenario. Fixating all her repugnance over returning to work on the single detail of her old boss’ bad breath, Greer builds Lina’s comic intensity until it explodes in a huge, cathartic laugh. With Slate, Greer, and Brett Gelman’s A.J. (summoned, along with his weed, to help Lina find her calm) hotboxing in the car and sending Gelman on an ill-fated errand to test the poor boss’ breath (perfect stoner logic there), the scene allows all three actors to play off each other beautifully. When the boss comes out to find his former employee and friends crouching ineffectually in the car and asks what she’s doing there, Lina’s frozen expression melts into a hesitant, “I…quit.” Never mind that she hasn’t actually worked there in years, or that she’s ditching her chance to get the money she needs, Lina’s pyrrhic triumph screaming her resignation while Jess peels out is perfectly balanced ludicrous hilarity.
It’s when the couple regroups at home and sees Russ’ payment is light (after paying the frat guys for some tantrum damage) that Russ reveals what he’s learned from Angel’s seemingly hacky remark, “White people always paying too much for shit.” When they take their daughter to the less-expensive dentist in Angel’s neighborhood, it, instead, points out another facet of the show’s examination of Russ and Lina. While they’re broke, they’re not that broke. What solves this particular problem is their willingness to break out of the narrow, suburban, (white) mindset that says the ways things are is the way things have to be. Of course, they both insist on being in the Latino dentist’s office while he tightens those braces, looking worried. Even if they’re just playing at being adults, venturing outside of that delusion is scary.
- Bernie, explaining his plans to collect on the debt via emails: “I’m starting to think I should mark them urgent but—I don’t wanna be that guy.”
- Working on Lina’s resume, Jess and Lina continue to make a great team. “I once flew by myself with all three kids. While I was breastfeeding.” “That is a baller move.”
- Continuing their team-up shopping for an interview dress, Greer’s rant about “stupid lunch with my stupid old boss wearing a stupid dress!” brings a welcome hint of her Archer character’s barely suppressed craziness, while Slate’s response to a creepy old man’s attentions (“Try that on and I’m gonna go mingle”) is spot-on as usual.
- “I could do calligraphy, or make jewelry.” Those are not jobs, those are rich white lady hobbies.” “I’m white.”
- I know there are a-hole frat guys, but these ones just seemed to be play-acting. For all heir casual talk of “skanks,” they know the words to misogyny but not the music, so to speak.
- When Russ tells Lina that her being a good mom is an achievement, her look of utter disgust says a lot.
- Russ, on the “Cocktoberfest” banners he made: “And Bernie here printed them on reinforced vinyl and he did a really great job!” Bernie: “I just send them as an attachment, but thank you.”
- “It’s not inappropriate. You don’t know what I’m doing right now!”
- “It’s creepy when you watch them sleep.”
“It appears that Doogie has come on our faces as well.”