Thursday, July 16, 2015

REVIEW: 'Married' - Lina and Russ Visit Her Parents and Are Surprised by What They Find in 'Thanksgiving'

FX's Married - Episode 2.01 "Thanksgiving"

Russ and Lina have a surprise Thanksgiving. Jess and AJ pretend not to know each other.

In its first season, Married never broke out like the show it was paired with, You're the Worst. It was never bad (except for that first episode). The show did give material to Nat Faxon, Judy Greer, Jenny Slate and Brett Gelman that they typically don't get to play. That was exciting and interesting to watch. But there were several problems with each of the main characters as well as how the show actually approached its storytelling. Now it's back for its second season with a new show as its lead-in, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. It's a very odd pairing for sure. But this season already seems to be tackling issues in a more honest and genuine way than it did for the majority of its first season. That's a welcome sign for what's to come this season.

Dealing with the emotional realities of a parent slowly losing her memory is a very depressing story to kick start the season. But it's in dealing with those incredibly difficult issues that the show is capable of telling a story that is compelling to watch from all sides of the argument. A visit to Lina's mom and stepdad at the new retirement community is enough for Lina to freak out over what is happening in her mother's life right now. She's worried about what is happening with her mind. She's trying to protect her. This is her mom and she wants to make sure that nothing bad is happening to her. Lina has never wanted to open up to Ed, her new stepfather. That comes entirely out of her real father leaving their family so many years ago. It's a genuine moment where she wants to do whatever is in her mother's best interest. But that love and need to protect also blinds Lina from seeing the truth about this community.

It was a rarity in the first season for Lina to be wrong and Russ to be right about a situation. Lina is much more than the shrill, nagging wife caricature. But she still falls into that pattern on occasion. Here she is asked to be and do so much more than that. She has genuine concerns for her mother's well-being. Plus, Russ' laid-back approach to handling the situation isn't completely anti-productive, annoying or ridiculous either. He has concerns as well. But he also has more willingness to accept that Ed is doing the best he can given what is happening. Russ doesn't have the same kind of abandonment issues as Lina. He does his best to get information from Ed for Lina in order for her to better understand the situation. But he doesn't make things more awkward or worse in the process. He simply has real conversations with both Ed and Lina that only make their concerns and feelings more genuine and real. The only thing that can assuage Lina's feelings regarding her mother is actually talking to Ed herself. It's not dismissing Russ and what he has done for his wife. But it's a moment that needed to happen for her own peace of mind.

Sure, a lot of that is then trumped up and made overly complicated when the assistant at the retirement home brings Lina's fake charges of elderly abuse to the community's director. That leads to Lina and Russ doing their best to lie their way out of the situation because they no longer have those concerns. But it's also a moment that highlights Lina's willingness to call Ed "her father." It's a moment set up early in the premiere. She only wants to refer to him as "the new husband" even though her mother married him a long time. The episode shows an internal evolution for her that comes to accept him as a part of her family who will do his best to protect her mother. She sees that now. It comes about through an awkward conversation about the two of them still having sex. But it's still a conversation that the two needed to have before things got a lot worse. The show was able to handle it magnificently.

Because the main story took up so much time, the B-story back in town with Jess, A.J. and Shep had the potential not to have enough time to tell a meaningful story. It wasn't as engaging as what Lina and Russ were up to. But it still showed the characters in a much different way than they were portrayed in the first season. It was an evolution that made them compelling to watch. A.J. was so destructive last season. Gelman made the role interesting but the character wasn't all that appealing. In this premiere, it becomes apparent how A.J. is capable of functioning in normal society. He's not just an over-the-top mess who can't seem to take anything seriously. Sure, his desire to always do right by his kid may seem like a softening device after the severity of his arc last season. But in the context of this one episode, it worked. It's a little concerning to hear that Jess may not think she has what it takes to be a good parent. That plot point actually does come out of nowhere. It's not completely unjustified. But it's still a drastic shift that could be hinting at something much darker for the future.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Thanksgiving" was written by Daisy Gardner and directed by Jamie Babbit.
  • Parents commenting on how inappropriate their teenage daughter is dressed is such a cliche storytelling beat. Married doesn't add a whole lot to that moment when it uses it to open the season. But it was still amusing watching Lina and Russ discuss whether she looks like a slut or an escort. That's commentary that the scene typical doesn't provide.
  • It's always great to see Frances Conroy. This character was one where the other characters talked about her a lot but she herself didn't do a whole lot. But still Conroy was great casting and made her lack of memory while still trying to function work.
  • Russ being freaked out about Ed being a former boxer didn't add a whole lot to the overall story. It was a stalling tactic but it still allowed Russ to be interesting while eventually getting to the great Ed-Lina conversation.
  • The young daughter asking her parents "What's rape?" was such an unexpected moment to end the episode on. It really worked too - largely because of Russ and Lina's uncertain reactions over how to handle the question.