Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Playing House: “Cashmere Burka”

Illustration for article titled Playing House: “Cashmere Burka”

I’m a sucker for the let’s-put-on-a-show genre of television, and “Cashmere Burka” is a worthy entry. These episodes tend to work best when the content of the play is taken seriously, regardless of actual quality, and the circumstances surrounding the mounting of the show become the comedy (see also: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp for another recent example). That works in “Cashmere Burka,” mostly because Jane Kaczmarek is a fantastic comedic actress.

Throughout Malcolm In the Middle, Kaczmarek was exceedingly good at playing this married mother figure, the matriarch in one of the disappearing representations of blue-collar families on TV. Gwen, however, is diametrically opposed to everything Lois was. Gwen wears designer clothes and writes an autobiographical play (written under the pseudonym of Nell Carter because “it’s not the right time” for her previous pen name, Phylicia Rashad). It’s wonderful to see her get to inhabit a completely different character than what she’s generally known for. Lois and Gwen are both demanding mothers who are wound up for completely different reasons. Where Lois was harried, Gwen is simply annoyed and disappointed. Her increasing number of scarves matched her ego on the stage. But what makes Kaczmarek so good at playing this wound-up character type is that she can also hit the very sweet moments, like bringing Emma into the family and referring to her as her daughter. But her best moments are when she’s throwing barbs, especially at Emma.

“Cashmere Burka” didn’t just allow for a comedic setpiece for Kaczmarek, but it expanded once again on Pinebrook’s world. Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham consistently cited Gilmore Girls as a huge influence on Playing House, in the relationships of the characters, but also the setting of this idyllic New England town populated by bunch of weirdos. Populating the cast with characters we’ve already been introduced to, a trick Gilmore Girls used to play all the time, gives Playing House this immediate sense of familiarity—that we’re not just looking at randos filling in spots in the back. These are people who we have already gotten to know, who have their own character traits. These background characters are largely interchangeable, they don’t say much, but they allow for richer comedy in that they get to be a part of the joke as well. (The ultimate in-joke being that Marissa Jaret Winokur, who plays Candy, is a Tony Award winner for Hairspray).

The first season of Playing House had an advantage in that it had an easy through-line, plot-wise: Maggie was pregnant and becoming increasingly more so as the season went on, eventually culminating in Charlotte. This season’s main through-line looks as if it’s going to be Emma’s relationship with Rabbi Dan (Kyle Bornheimer), the challah-carrying man from “Sleepless in Pinebrook.” Perhaps their relationship needs to evolve more, or not rely on this cliché of keeping a relationship quiet—does this happen in real life? Or is this just a sitcom thing to create romantic confusion?—but this story did not work as well as the rest of the episode. Perhaps because it was well-worn territory and never really involved all that much conflict, perhaps because it was outshined by the A-plot. Dan simply needs more to do than a contrived plot about keeping the kibitzing Jewish ladies out of his biz.

Maggie’s through-line, Charlotte, was a complete non-entity throughout the episode. Last week, I praised the show for making it not all about the baby, considering Parham and St. Clair are clearly the main draw of the show. But Charlotte was barely in the episode and she certainly did not have any effect on the driving the plot further. I’m sure there will be other baby-centric plots, but it would be lying if I said I missed the kid.

Stray observations:

  • The zenith of the “Let’s put on a show!” genre is, of course, The Simpson’s “A Streetcar Named Marge” which also involves a creative head (Jon Lovitz’s Llewellyn Sinclair) kicking out a member of the cast in favor of casting himself.
  • All of Mark’s necklines. Especially the back deep V.
  • I could watch a full episode of Jessica St. Clair performing parts of Cashmere Burka.
  • “I feel like I have met my match, cheese-wise.” This is true love, my friends.
  • “Forty women crapping themselves through Chanel skirts is a real game changer.”
  • Mark’s euphemisms for vagina: 12 foot lady’s [whistle], the hairy oyster, the star anise fruit, the barn doors where the baby comes out.
  • Lennon Parham’s freakouts are the best.