Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham certainly merit points for perseverance. Having co-created and starred in the short-lived, modestly appealing NBC sitcom “Best Friends Forever,” they migrate within the same corporate hierarchy over to USA, collaborating on the modestly appealing “Playing House.” Both shows involve the two pals living together, here in preparation for the birth of a baby. While the duo has an obvious rapport, this is still a rather wispy premise for a network whose sitcom development remains on wobbly toddler legs.
The fairly classic set-up has St. Clair’s Emma as the hard-driving career woman (she’s initially seen working in Shanghai) returning home to throw a baby shower for her bosom buddy Maggie (Parham). Still, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out Maggie’s husband (Brad Morris) is a bit of a worm and that Emma will ultimately be moving in to help guide her friend through the birth (and with any luck — for them, if not the audience — well beyond).
The two leads finish each other’s sentences with rat-a-tat banter, while the extended family includes Maggie’s awkward brother (“The Office’s” Zach Woods, also currently in “Silicon Valley”) and Emma’s ex-boyfriend Mark (Keegan-Michael Key of Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele”), a local cop who is now married.
Awkward situations ensue, from the world’s worst baby shower to, in a second episode, a brunch with Mark’s wife, an inordinately sensitive soul who Emma and Maggie teased behind her back during high school. (Jane Kaczmarek, not in the first two episodes, will turn up later as Emma’s mother.)
Accustomed to second-banana roles, the actresses have essentially taken charge of their careers by devising these star vehicles. Yet while St. Clair and Parham play well off each other, they also affect almost the exact same comedic voice. In other words, there’s no Lucy and Ethel in this pairing, with each being a little bit of both. (If Maggie is a tad more emotional, that has more to do with her vulnerable condition and raging hormones than with her personality, as she makes clear.)
As for USA, which has come to embody a certain style of breezy blue-sky drama, the channel still appears to be shuffling somewhat in terms of its comedy footprint, with “Playing House” — decidedly feminine in its appeal — following the more ballsy and blue “Sirens.”
Obviously, the birthing process in TV can be difficult. But at this point, “Playing House” looks more like a rental than the kind of show destined to put down roots.