Critics love to complain that female friendships on TV aren’t realistic (see: Mistresses, Pretty Little Liars, every show on Bravo). And while that may be true, Playing House reminds us why the unrealistic ones can still be fun to watch. Created by real-life besties Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, this aspirational buddy comedy makes you covet not only the main characters’ friendship but also their newly renovated kitchens, their endlessly perky energy—basically, their whole lives. Last season, when mother-to-be Maggie (Parham) split up with her unfaithful husband, her childhood friend Emma (St. Clair) quit a high-powered job in Shanghai and moved back to the hometown she hates just to help raise Maggie’s baby, Charlotte. This season, Maggie remains on impossibly good terms with her ex (Brad Morris), who willingly volunteers to bathe Charlotte while Maggie goes out for drinks with Hootie & the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker. He’s one of the many romantic prospects whose photos Emma grabbed off Tinder and painstakingly wallpapered across the living room, helpfully dividing them into Maggie-friendly categories like “Widowers” and “Balding but Owning It.” It’s the ultimate single-mother daydream: Everyone’s here to serve only Maggie, who basically gets to marry her best girlfriend, date a Grammy-winning musician, and leave her ex to clean up the mess when Charlotte uses the bathtub for a toilet.
The premise might be fantastical, but Playing House still nails certain truths about female friendship. Maggie and Emma rely on each other more than two men might, which makes their domestic arrangement work, and there’s a certain romance and intimacy to their platonic relationship. Emma even listens to Maggie’s sex dreams when they involve HGTV’s Property Brothers. (“They took off my tarp and there was no carpet, even though there is carpet in real life!” whispers Maggie, trying to use coded language that Charlotte won’t understand.) They care less about impressing guys than they do about impressing each other, and their observations about other women are devastatingly accurate, giving the show some of its best moments. When Emma’s crush Mark (Keegan-Michael Key) adopts a dog with his wife (Lindsay Sloane), Emma says that’s how women safeguard themselves from divorce. It happened to a friend: “I’d see her on Facebook sometimes, all alone, just covered in beagles!”
If Playing House has a problem, it’s that it’s not unrealistic enough. The escapism isn’t as wild or imaginative as it could be. (Maggie gets to date a celebrity, but that celebrity is…Hootie?) The humor is too tame, focused on muffin tops, nursing bras, and other jokes that are best reserved for mommy blogs. Maggie and Emma speak in the glorious rat-a-tat shorthand that’s too often reserved for screwball comedies, but their conversations are less dynamic because both women communicate in the same voice. They’re less Laverne & Shirley than Laverne & That Other Laverne. How strange that Parham and St. Clair can’t always capture their real-life chemistry on screen. What makes a great friendship doesn’t always make for great television. B