Sitcoms have been all over the whole friendship thing for a long time now, which is great. There are, of course, the uncountably many “Friends”-type shows, in which friends have become family, teasing one another as a sign of love, providing ensemble warmth against the cold cruel world. And then there are the one-on-one friendship comedies, from the over-sexualized “2 Broke Girls” to the slackerrific “Broad City” and the cringey “Doll and Em.”
USA’s “Playing House” falls into that second species of friendship sitcom, with two lifelong besties, Emma (Jessica St. Clair) and the pregnant Maggie (Lennon Parham), living together and getting ready to raise a child. The premiere, Tuesday at 10 p.m., sets it all up briskly, without the strain that mars too many sitcom pilots. Emma, a high-powered international businesswoman, returns to the small Connecticut town of her childhood to attend Maggie’s baby shower. When it turns out Maggie’s husband is having an online affair, Maggie kicks him out and Emma decides to move in. Table: set.
One of the nice things about “Playing House,” based on a preview of the first two episodes, is that neither Emma nor Maggie is seen as somehow settling. The show makes it clear that their new arrangement isn’t some kind of sad second choice to marriage so much as an opportunity for each of them to grow. The title “Playing House” implies there’s something artificial about the arrangement, but that sense doesn’t make it into the script. These women love each other, and the idea of cohabitation pleases them. They aren’t lovers, but, as with many friends in the real world, their relationship has romantic elements, as they finish each other’s sentences and speak in affectionate code.
Also a plus: Parham and St. Clair have chemistry. When the material is overly familiar — Emma running into her high school boyfriend, the predictably quirky characters who populate a small town — their timing lifts it up a few notches. They’ve worked together for years, first at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and then on a short-lived NBC sitcom called “Best Friends Forever” in 2012, so their rapport has a lived-in feel. They fast-talk jokes together like every female sitcom duo these days, but they also take the time to show the sweet and less chipper side of the friendship.
St. Clair and Parham, who are among the single-camera show’s executive producers, have surrounded themselves with a potentially above-average supporting cast. Keegan-Michael Key from “Key and Peele” is Emma’s old beau, who has become a cop and married a fragile woman in the years since Emma moved away. He’s a good foil, especially when dealing with a gnome-obsessed local. Zach Woods, who was on “The Office” and currently stars on “Silicon Valley,” is amusingly creepy as Maggie’s string-bean-like brother. And Jane Kaczmarek, from “Malcolm in the Middle,” is due mid-season as Emma’s mother.
The entire season of “Playing House” will be only 10 episodes, which means the writers have a chance to work on the show’s weaknesses instead of merely churning out jokes to fill. Easy gags such as having Emma feel up Maggie’s breasts, which have grown with her pregnancy, are the kinds of lazy moments that plague too many network sitcoms. USA is promoting the show as an “original comedy”; let’s see if they can put more truth in that advertising.