Happy Monday! You know how every week we talk about the Best TV Shows on TV, and we pick out a bunch of the best shows of the last seven days and talk about how great they are? Well, for the first time ever, we’re going to focus on a single show.
That’s right, we’re devoting the whole column this week to Playing House. It’s a show we’ve been talking about since day one, and before that we talked about Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair’s previous show, Best Friends Forever. Lennon and Jessica are great and we’re huge fans. How big? Well, when they kind of disappeared from doing podcasts for a year, we worried that maybe they had a fight with Scott Aukerman and we’d have to choose sides. That would be a million times tougher than the actual Sophie’s Choice. (Turns out there was a very good reason.) Playing House is a funny and charming show that’s impossible not to love.
After a lengthy break between seasons, the show returned recently for Season Three. During that break, Jessica St. Clair was diagnosed with breast cancer. It wasn’t anything that was widely known, even for those of us who spend most of our free time covering our favorite TV shows, and it only really went public when she wrote a powerful blog post about it this past May. Please read it before you go on, OK?
They decided to work the real-life experience into the show, and we’ll be honest with you, Playing House is downright silly more often than not. Yes, they wrung some tears out of us in the birth episode and there are these moments of beauty but it’s mostly about making you laugh like a goon. St. Clair’s Emma doffing imaginary caps at every opportunity, Parham’s Maggie breaking out the body rolls at every opportunity, stripping cops, hotel spaghetti and white blazers – it is a funny show. And not every comedy can segue into something important. We grew up in the age of Very Special Episodes and most of those VSEs were not very good. You knew if your show opened with one of the actors addressing the audience directly to tell you to watch it with your family, well, this was not going to be a fun episode of Diff’rent Strokes. But still, Lennon and Jessica are very good at making TV.
And the first three episodes of the season were weird and funny and just an absolute blast. The same night as the episode starting Emma’s cancer storyline, there was another episode about a women’s basketball league. There was this bit where Emma jumped to block a shot, but the way Jessica jumped… it’s like she’d never seen a human being jump before. She somehow used only the wrong muscles and it was hilarious. And even the actual episode itself opened with hoagie jokes, Zach Woods abusing melons to teach children about bike safety, and a funny A-Plot with Maggie shooting a promotional video for the hospital where she works. Emma only went in for a physical so she could try to wingman Maggie with the new doctor. It takes a big zag mid-exam, and they absolutely nail. There’s nothing exploitative or melodramatic about it; it’s just the perfect snapshot of that moment when everything was fine and suddenly it isn’t. And the faces of Emma and Maggie in the scene when the doctor confirms it’s cancer are just devastating. They’re fighting back tears and it’s impossible not to think about how this is a thing that actually happened to them. It’s a real life cancer survivor and her real life best friend who fought this battle in real life. Jessica and Lennon brought us in and it’s as personal as scripted TV can get.
As an aside, we understand that we are not actually friends with the people on the shows we love. Not even Peter Capaldi. But Lennon and Jessica have always been so open and accessible. They livetweet every episode of Playing House and BFF before that and certainly seem to enjoy the fan interaction. They’ve been very supportive of our PH / BFF coverage over the years. All this is just to say that this story could still be told very well and in an engaging way on other shows, but most of us Jammers have had nice interactions with Jessica and Lennon online in one way or another and that makes this so much more powerful and immediate.
The next episode focused on Emma’s treatment and surgery, and it cribbed heavily from St. Clair’s actual experience (right down to Lennon being the one to pick out her new boobs, per Twitter). It’s an astonishing episode of television in the way it feels almost too real. From the casual and tasteless jokes that only a person with cancer is allowed to make to the weird and contradictory emotions that accompany those life-changing moments. Both Lennon and Jessica are doing Emmy work here, as both of them struggle to be strong. It feels like we’re watching conversations that they actually had not that long ago. And yes, we get some nice jokes throughout, like the group of cops in the waiting room to show support after Emma banned her boyfriend Mark from coming (“I need to be strong and just get it done. And I’m afraid that… if I see you, I’m gonna cry and I just can’t do that.”), or the three for a dollar socks, but it mostly feels like people supporting one another on the hardest day of their lives. Humor comes from that, but not in the script-y sort of way. It’s one of the best episodes of anything this year, and there are people going through the same thing for whom this could be helpful and important.
It’s followed up by a craft night episode where everybody accidentally gets high (not usually a favorite plot device, but this is executed so well) and that gets us to a unexpected and lovely bonding moment between Emma and her self-defense instructor (Lauren Weedman), a woman who previously pronounced Emma “the weakest person I’ve ever seen” and (we learn) another cancer survivor. Also, Maggie was very proud of the owl she painted and so that’s worth mentioning. The season wrapped up with a couple of hysterical episodes, one based around a Game of Thrones birthday party, which reunited Jessica and Lennon with their BFF costar Daija Owens, and a drag-centric episode that brought back Bosephus (it’s a long story, but it’s very funny). They’re episodes that could have stood alone, but Emma and Maggie are still dealing with the aftermath of the surgery, and there’s an especially touching aside in the finale where the drag queens help Emma learn to embrace her new breasts.
Playing House has always been a fun show, one that we look forward to every season ad reference constantly. But this season did something difficult and important. Jessica’s willingness to be so open can only help people and the talents of the cast and crew made something that could have been a Very Special Episode into something that is actually, well, very special. The show is a labor of love and that’s never been more true than it was in Season Three, when Jessica and Lennon poured their hearts out. We’re so thankful that Jessica is recovering so well, we’re happy that she clearly has wonderful friends and family, and we’re going to patiently wait for Season Four and hope that maybe we won’t cry as much the next time around.