Playing House was created by real-life best friends Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. If they look familiar (and they should), it’s probably because of NBC’s Best Friends Forever, where they starred as best friends who live together. The show only lasted six episodes, and its cancellation was sad because the show filled a void on television: a solid, believable female friendship, especially one between adults. Two years later the duo (and their natural chemistry) returned with Playing House on USA (and with actual promotion from the network!), an even better sitcom with similar themes — and a similar worry that it unfairly won’t see a second season.
In Best Friends Forever, St. Clair’s character gets divorced, and Parham’s helps her through it. In Playing House, it’s Parham’s character, Maggie, who ends her marriage — while pregnant. Emma (St. Clair) leaves her overseas job to move back home and help. Even as early as the pilot, it’s clear that the show’s most important relationship is the friendship between Maggie and Emma. Emma moves home for her friend, not a guy. Maggie’s cheating husband rarely appears for the rest of the season (but will stay in the baby’s life; the show doesn’t write him off completely). Maggie’s crush on her lawyer (Andy Daly) and Emma’s lingering feelings for an ex-boyfriend (Keegan-Michael Key) never overtake the story. Playing House has fun deviations throughout its short first season, but the road always comes back to Maggie and Emma, toughing it out together.
Sitcoms featuring strong female friendships are unfortunately rare on television. In recent years, we’ve seen more and more great (or not-so-great) TV series focused on women, but most don’t touch upon friendships like this one. According to most of television, girls are best friends until they hit their 20s. Then they are suddenly either a) the lone cool girl in a group of dude friends or b) have superficial friendships with women, generally as a way to discuss relationships.
In The Mindy Project, Mindy doesn’t really have any women friends; her best friend Gwen (Anna Camp) disappeared after a casting shake-up, and now Mindy spends her time with her love interest Danny or her male coworker Peter. I love New Girl, but Jess and Cece’s friendship is often shoved behind their romantic entanglements (or platonic interactions with the guys). Parks and Recreation once had the great Leslie-and-Ann pairing — I maintain that their Snake Juice-fueled argument in “The Fight” is one of the funniest and most accurate depictions of female friendship ever — but Rashida Jones left the show last season. In How I Met Your Mother, Robin and Lily’s friendship was rarely taken seriously; instead, Robin remarked about how much she hated women and the writers made numerous jokes about Lily having a crush on Robin. MTV’s Faking It had the opportunity to explore the super-close relationship between two best friends and squandered it.
That’s why I treasure the shows that do get it right. Broad City is the obvious frontrunner — Abbi and Ilana care deeply about each other, and nothing else really matters. They can be too broke, too high, and too overwhelmed, but as long as they end the night walking home together (or Skype-puking together), it’s a success.
Playing House is similar, albeit with slightly older and slightly more put-together women. Sure, Emma and Maggie often talk about the guys in their lives (or fight over a specific guy in their lives), but not once do these men take over the narrative. Everything about it is refreshingly accurate. Their friendship isn’t perfect, and the two argue about everything, but it’s always quickly resolved. Sometimes it’s resolved by an explicit and honest conversation, and sometimes it’s just resolved naturally, because that’s how arguments go with people you love. When Playing House is strongest, Emma and Maggie are the only ones on screen. When it’s weakest, which isn’t often, the two characters are separated into their own plots — though it’s worth mentioning that they always come back together.
In last night’s two-episode finale, Maggie has her baby with Emma by her side — Emma is the only one who is able to fully calm her down and make her feel safe — and it should be the natural ending to the first season, but we’re treated to another episode that hints at what this friendship, this makeshift family, is going to be like from now on. The pilot had a scene where an overwhelmed Maggie breaks down to Emma in the backyard’s play house. The finale bookends the season in the same setting but with the roles reversed. It’s a give-and-take friendship. Neither woman is more important than the other, nor does either want to be.
Playing House hasn’t had the best ratings (despite many efforts; they have a great social media presence, and it’s obvious Parham and St. Clair delight in interacting with fans on Twitter), but if USA is smart, the network will renew it. It should go without saying, but Playing House is consistently funny. The supporting cast includes everyone from Zach Woods to Jane Kaczmarek. There are laughs in both the smallest things, like the pronunciation of the word “cool,” and the bigger moments, like a Magic Mike-inspired strip show featuring the town’s cops. (If Keegan-Michael Key stripping to “Pony” isn’t enough to get you interested in this show, then I give up.)
But also? Playing House is necessary for USA’s slate. It’s only the network’s second original comedy, and it not only sticks out among USA’s offerings of dramas about male lawyers, male cops, and male doctors, but fills a genuine gap on TV as a whole. Television boasting a strong, balanced friendship between women that isn’t based on men or competition but instead on love and respect isn’t just wonderful — it’s incredibly important.