How USA Network’s ‘Playing House’ Challenged The Nuclear Family

2014 was a rough year for sitcom lovers. 30 Rock had just ended, How I Met Your Mother aired its last episodes, Suburgatory got canceled, and NBC announced Parks and Recreation’s final season. Despite all the gloom, though, USA Network quietly premiered its newest comedy, Playing House. The show’s fun, refreshing take on motherhood and its two leads’ real-life friendship shining through on-screen make Playing House one of the most criminally underrated and noteworthy shows of the past decade in any genre.

The show starts with a pregnant Maggie Caruso (Lennon Parham) finding out that her husband is having an online affair with a German woman who goes by MunichMuncher69. Following the discovery, her childhood best friend, Emma Crawford (Jessica St. Clair), who traveled back from Shanghai for the baby shower, decides to move back to their hometown of Pinebrook, Connecticut. Of course, this being a sitcom, Emma further decides to leave behind the life she established abroad in order to move in with Maggie and help her raise the baby. To Emma, the choice between career and friend is obvious; Maggie, at first doubtful and combative, soon tells Emma there is no one with whom she would rather raise her child. Her realization, which could easily be mistaken for the ending of a lesbian rom-com, is merely the first of many times Playing House gives us Maggie and Emma being the gayest straight people you’ve ever seen on your screen.

Jessica St. Clair as Emma Crawford, Keegan-Michael Key as Mark, and Lennon Parham as Maggie Caruso in Playing House. (Courtesy: NBC)

Playing House‘s first season is an absolute gem of comedy. For the uninitiated, prime examples include Episode 6, “Bosephus and the Catfish,” or the season’s penultimate episode, “Let’s Have a Baby.” The latter gives a little more insight into the role Emma will have in her best friend’s child’s life. When Maggie goes into labor, Emma and her high school boyfriend Mark (Keegan-Michael Key) drive her to the hospital, forgetting to inform the father, Bruce (Brad Morris), until they get there. This detail is both a simple joke and an establishment of the family dynamic to come: Emma is more present — both for Maggie and Maggie’s daughter Charlotte Emma — than Bruce will ever be, despite his efforts at being a better father than he was a husband. (In fact, Maggie even calls herself a single mother Playing House Season 2 Episode 3, confirming Bruce’s infrequent presence in his child’s life.)

Emma is in the room during Charlotte’s birth, was there for every check-up before the delivery, and remains there for the child every step of the way thereafter. She’s not a cool-aunt-who-hides-your-pot (though she later tells Maggie that she would if Charlotte asked her to) as much as she is a second mother. When complaining about being single, Emma calls Charlotte “the only daughter [I’ll] ever have.” Emma takes care of Charlotte while Maggie first works as a waitress and continues to do so after Maggie realizes she wants to go back to school and become a nurse. When an overwhelmed, crying Maggie can’t imagine how she’ll ever manage a career change, it’s Emma who reassures her – after all, the very reason she came back to Pinebrook is to help Maggie raise her child. Charlotte’s first family photo even features Emma when Bruce is – you guessed it! – nowhere to be found.

Even though Playing House Seasons 1 and 2 are the perfect mixture of comedy and relatable real-life issues, Season 3 might be the show’s strongest, with outstanding performances from main and recurring casts and guests alike. An initially comic plot (Maggie pretending to be a patient at her own hospital in order to get information about a doctor Emma’s interested in) takes a horrific turn: Emma is diagnosed with breast cancer. Of course, she insists that she needs to stay alive for Charlotte’s sake; during her first meeting with her oncologist, Emma breaks down while explaining she has a one-year-old daughter who needs her, before clarifying that Charlotte is Maggie’s daughter. And of course Maggie corrects her friend in turn, telling Emma that, yes, Charlotte is her daughter, too. Emma’s simple, barely audible “Yes, she is,” easily lost on an inattentive viewer, is the utmost recognition and testament to what Emma has been and will always be to both Maggie and Charlotte, despite what the girl’s birth certificate might say.

Brook and Tatum Conte as Charlotte Caruso, Lennon Parham as Maggie Caruso, and Jessica St. Clair as Emma Crawford in Playing House. (Courtesy: Michael Yarish/NBC)

Though Playing House was sadly canceled after season 3, Lennon Parham mentioned during press for HBO Max’s Minx (recapped beautifully by Kara Powell) that she and Jessica St. Clair are working on a movie. Parham added that the two hope to star in their film – and that it should should “check all the boxes” for fans of the show. In other words, it’s something to keep an eye out for.

In the meantime, Playing House remains, at its very core, one of television’s most genuine and heart-warming depictions of friendship and motherhood. More than that, the show is a perfect sitcom representation of the found family trope, co-parenting, and unconditional love. In many ways, it joins shows like Single Parents or even The Fosters in the idea that blood doesn’t necessarily make a family, but love does. That, among its many qualities, might be Playing House‘s biggest.

Playing House is available on Amazon Prime and iTunes. 

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