Sunday, September 13, 2015

The low-key greatness of Married's second season

At the most recent TCA press tour, FX president John Landgraf lamented that critics didn't give Married, the shaggy dramedy that debuted on the network last year, enough of a shot before writing it off.  After he made that statement, I saw many live-tweeting TV critics scoff at that notion, but I think he may have been on to something.  When the show began, I gave the pilot a cautiously optimistic review, and I felt much more positively about it than I did about its time block companion, You're the Worst.  Over the course of those two shows' first seasons, I had a reversal of opinion -- You're the Worst became one of my favorite comedies of the year, while Married stumbled around, only sort of finding itself in the finale.  Fast forward to this year and the latter has become one of my favorites of this summer, not necessarily a completely different beast from its previous season, just a better and more refined one.

Many critics' problem with Married last year was that it just wasn't funny enough.  That's true -- the show wasn't very funny in its first season.  But the issue wasn't that it was unfunny, it's that it was a little unpleasant.  Mainly, this was a blight that plagued the central relationship between Russ and Lina, despite the best efforts from the talented Nat Faxon and Judy Greer.  It seemed like the show's mission statement was to live up to its namesake, to show married life as it is truly lived.  Russ and Lina are a couple that have been in love for so long that they almost hate each other, but I think in trying to portray that, season one forgot to show the "in love" part.  It was hard to see any reason why they would still be together, which didn't make them very interesting to watch.

If there's one key difference in season two, it's that Married has found a way to perfectly modulate the unpleasantness that threatened to capsize the show in the first season.  This year, every character is allowed to show more shades to their personality outside of being glum and discontent.  Russ and Lina are still weary from the years of being parents and partners -- sometimes more than ever -- but they also have more moments where they clearly enjoy being around each other and their children.  Just a simple change like that and the show feels so much more vibrant and layered.  It still isn't likely to cause your gut to split open from laughter, but in place of comedy is a deep melancholic streak that feels raw and compelling.  Some moments -- the story with Lina's mother's dementia in "Thanksgiving," Russ and Jess' declining friendship throughout the season, the bitter conflict between Ella and Lina in "Mother's Day" -- don't even seem to be trying to make you laugh and they're all the better for it.

The greatest embodiment of the show's melancholy nature is Lina, who may be one of the most unique and fascinating characters on television.  She's gloomy in a way that you don't often see in unhappy characters, who either suffer from an unrelenting dramatic depression or are comical sadsacks.  Lina is just kind of tired and disappointed in a very real and relatable way.  But that doesn't mean she can't express joy or make jokes either, which she does a few times per episode, much more than in the first season.  In having all of these shades and contrasts, Lina is one of the richest portraits of depression I've ever seen on TV.  Not enough credit can be given to Judy Greer, who plays all of the facets of Lina's character beautifully.  Greer is so brilliant in everything she does, yet she still feels underrated.  Anyone who complained about her bit roles in all of this summer's biggest blockbusters is missing out if they're not watching this showcase of her talents.

Not everybody gets to be as well-served as Greer though.  One of the biggest flaws that continues to hold Married back is that the supporting characters have never really clicked in the way the show wants them to.  Part of that is because they've had to shift the roster around so much, with Jess leaving due to Jenny Slate getting her own show picked up, leaving the writers to give John Hodgman's Bernie a larger role and introduce new characters played by Sarah Burns and Kumiko Glenn.  But it's also because characters like Bernie or A.J. (Brett Gelman) don't always fit the tone the show is striving for with the Russ and Lina stories.  Because of that, it rarely ever has episodes where all of the plots work in equal measure.

Still, the last two weeks have been an improvement in regards to the show's balancing issues.  "Mother's Day" was the best episode of the season so far, partially because it was the first time this year that every plotline completely worked, and the writers found a way to integrate A.J. and Shep (Paul Reiser) so that they felt like a vital part of the proceedings.  This past week's superb "Guardians" did the same thing for Jess.  Due to Slate's limited availability, Jess' arc has been pretty wonky, rushing her story and then awkwardly trying to justify her absence from the middle section of the season.  But "Guardians" leaned into her hiatus and the inevitability of her character being written off of the show, and used it to their advantage, spinning it into a story about her growing apart from Russ and everybody else who previously tolerated her.  Jess is a frustrating and selfish person, but her pain from feeling alienated and unwanted was devastating, and Slate (who proved her dramatic talents in last year's excellent Obvious Child) gave a performance that made it sting even more.

Married is never going to blow anyone away; it's far too low-key for that.  But TV doesn't always need to blow you away.  What Married often achieves, a subtle satisfaction, is impressive in its own right.  Give this another shot if you checked out at some point in season one.  It's one of the most underrated shows airing right now.

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