Married’s comedy is tied to its protagonists’ way of looking at life—knowingly low-key, wearily witty, and possessed of the secret, slightly embarrassing knowledge that problems encountered within are largely of their own making. As the show has let us in on who Russ and Lina are, it’s allowed us to share in the couple’s own self-criticism to an admirable degree, gradually leading viewers to agree with the characters themselves that their problems could be better coped with if they took some pretty obvious steps to act more like the grown-ups they’re still largely playing at being.
It’s an interesting theme, and one traditional sitcoms don’t examine with Married’s degree of self-awareness, for one particular reason—it makes it hard to like the characters. If we can see what Russ and Lina could do to not be so beleaguered and sad all the time, then empathizing with them becomes a chore—except that the show understands the extent to which we all do the same thing. When, after tonight’s fruitless attempt to force Russ into her scheme to buy a house that they couldn’t afford (and which, it turns out, wasn’t even really for sale), Lina says, “I need to get a job,” the immediate response seems to be “That’s obvious, Lina.” (Or “No shit, Lina,” if said viewer is particularly unsympathetic.) But the way Married has presented—and Judy Greer performed—Lina so far, the response is more like Russ’—placating denial, then a joke about how she’s right. Then maybe a hug while you sleep on it. After all, we’re in this thing together.
That final scene encapsulates Married’s specific comedy tone so well—and, as tonight’s admittedly lesser episode shows, that tone is a delicate thing. The plot opens with the sort of crisis designed to underline the Bowman’s embarrassment at where they are in life—their landlord (turns out they’re just renting that house) has listed their place without telling them. So, after hastily hiding Russ’ weed, Lina’s vibrator, and those Polaroids (“They’re of me,” objects Lina. “But they’re mine,” counters Russ), they have to contend with the mean-but-accurate comments from a houseful of jerks about how shabby their home is. (When one couple storms off complaining that it looks like the bathrooms have never been cleaned, they have to concede the point.) It’s an abrupt starting gun for the plot, segueing into another when A.J. immediately tips them off about a house that’s available for purchase—his current girlfriend’s house, which Lina, equally immediately, becomes obsessed with buying.
“Waffles & Pizza” comes in short—clocking in at barely 21 minutes, by my count. And while Married episodes are usually somewhere in that range, they generally seem as long as they dramatically should be. This episode—which packs in Russ and Lina’s home insecurity, Lina’s scheme to get A.J.’s still-married girlfriend Cynthia (Jennifer Lafleur) to sell her house, A.J.’s pursuit of Cynthia, and an unrelated Jess subplot about her boss (David Wain) pressuring her to score him some coke—seems both overstuffed and thin. Bookended by some of the feelingly somber comic moments Married does so well, the middle of the episode is manic, to less purpose than usual.
Lina’s laser focus on buying that house (which they can’t afford anyway) is set up by Russ’ statement that she gets that way every time they have to move, which is the sort of ready-made trait a lot of sitcoms will just toss out there. Here, it’s backed up by Greer’s performance, which carries the same undercurrent of barely-concealed desperation she’s demonstrated since the pilot. When she enlists the reluctant help of the desperately uncomfortable Russ to manipulate Cynthia to not only dump her estranged husband but also to sell their house, the character reasons for their behavior are sound enough—Lina hates the insecurity of their situation while Russ is embarrassed at his inability to provide that security—but the scene comes off as rushed and underwhelming. (The just-introduced Cynthia doesn’t have enough presence, for one thing.)
A.J.’s story, too, feels rushed—yet makes sense. Brett Gelman’s performance as A.J. has teetered on the edge of creepiness, what with the barely-legal girlfriends and the barely-legal prostitutes and such. But, as with everyone on Married, A.J.’s operating from a deep well of self-loathing, which goes a long way toward humanizing him. His enthusiastic infatuation with the seemingly stable, age-appropriate Cynthia (“Way less whorey than usual,” muses a confused Lina) is, like Lina’s house-mania, an overcorrection. Sure, he’s still A.J. (“Normal makes me hard. It’s my new fetish”), but, as revealed when Cynthia has a friend break up with him for her, his manic pursuit of normalcy stems from the depression that’s clearly driving his ongoing dissipation. His final, “We were supposed to be together,” as delivered by Gelman, says a lot about what’s at the heart of his “oversexed wacky sitcom buddy” character. It’s affecting.
When Lina’s various ploys don’t work out and the couple is faced with moving again (as it’s revealed they must every few years), Russ and Lina’s late night conversation is a little masterpiece of characterization and insight. All the pieces of who these characters are play out in the hesitations and tired eyes of Greer and Nat Faxon’s performances here. While it’s certainly true that the Bowmans aren’t facing real catastrophe, they are facing the ongoing erosion of who they thought they were going to be. We’ve heard about the failed surf shop, and Russ’ fading artistic ambitions, and we’ve seen glimpses of the fun, hilarious couple that they used to be before they had kids, and money troubles, and the petty indignities of renter-ship. That they know how much of their dissatisfaction is thoroughly banal is part of their unhappiness. It also makes them that much more relatable.
All the pieces are there in “Waffles & Pizza.” That it doesn’t quite work is indicative of what a difficult comic tone the show is attempting.
- The surprise open house that kicks off the plot tonight is a contrivance. Although, as a lifelong renter familiar with the capricious (read: evil) ways of landlords everywhere, I’ll allow it.
- While the vagaries of FX’s commercial policies are above my pay grade, this episode could really have used some more of the bantering interplay the cast does so well to fill out each story (and some time). Jess, funny little bit with A.J. at the end notwithstanding, is just floating in isolation tonight.
- “Well, I hope Carl beats her.” “Not cool!” “But if he does do it I hope he does it in front of the kids.” “Well, is there any other way to do it?” “Leave your mark.”
- Married continues to bring in seemingly scary “ethnic” characters who turn out to be more interesting in the end (and who reveal themselves to be just as depressed as the main characters). Tonight we’re set up to see Ido Ezra’s Amir, appearing unexpectedly in A.J.’s apartment with Cynthia’s key, as some leather-jacketed “foreign guy” thug. Instead, he’s just a well-meaning friend of hers, trying to talk sense to A.J. and, like Lobo Sebastian’s Angel, he ends up sucked into the character’s sad, lonely orbit by the end.
- There’s no follow-up tonight to Jess’ presumed infidelity to Shep at the end of last week’s episode. Instead, her quest to get her boss some cocaine finds her confronting how her former party girl reputation (“You’re not really a girl,” chides Russ). And while I like the way Married gives its side characters their own stories, this one doesn’t register as affectingly as did last week’s. Did like the payoff, with Jess’ seemingly principled stand for workplace respect actually being a ploy to get a promotion. Oh, and she did manage to score some coke for herself.
- Yes, that was Breaking Bad’s Charles Baker as Jess’ former drug dealer. Skinny Pete has gone straight.
- “You shut the door and locked it. I feel like that means I’m getting fired—or bent over something.”
- Russ and Lina linger with Cynthia outside the restaurant so she’ll think they valet parked.
- “You’re not a loser because you can’t afford anything. You’re a loser for different reasons.”
- Lina, after sending daughter Maya to dig up dirt on Cynthia’s marriage: “That’s how you play recon.” Maya: “That game’s stupid.” Lina: “You’re stupid.”