Parham and St. Clair grow up with 'Playing House'

Wednesday, August 12, 2015 - 10:49pm

NOSELL

USA

There’s a saying that warns if you want to stay friends with somebody, don’t live with them.

Literally applied, living with your best friend can be a serious wake-up call — suddenly you’re intimate with her mess, her quirks and the constant stream of conversation — which can lay grounds for a friendivorce if you’re not careful. But other things divide friends who make a lifestyle out of their friendship: Bands split, like Mouserat in “Parks and Recreation”; cliques break up, like Blair and Serena’s posse on “Gossip Girl.” The question is, can a real-life friendship last on screen, like Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair’s in USA’s “Playing House”? 

The show, co-wrote and co-starred in by comic BFFs Parham and St. Clair (think the next generation of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler), aired its first season last year with a too-good-to-be-true premise: Pregnant Maggie (Parham, “Accidentally On Purpose”) just discovered that her husband was having an online affair, so in a heroic act of chicks before dicks, best friend Emma (St. Clair, “Bridesmaids”) quit her high-paying job in China to move back to her small hometown and help her friend. Really, it’s the stuff of best friend dreams — try and fail at marriage, surrender to the fact that you’re each other’s soul mates, then move in together like college all over again, but this time with an adorable baby girl as a third roommate. 

And here’s the real kicker: Maggie and Emma aren’t only TV best friends living the dream; they’re real best friends living the dream. Like Fey and Poehler, who met through the Second City comedy show in Chicago, Parham and St. Clair also met on the improvisational comedy stage, performing with the Upright Citizens Brigade sketch comedy troupe in New York City and Los Angeles. Since leaving the spotlight, the friends split into the funny scene — Parham guest starred on “Parks and Recreation,” while St. Clair was the bridal retailer in the classic poop scene in “Bridesmaids” — but they came back together, scheming up a show that would resurrect their old days battering on the improv stage. 

In 2012, the duo thought they nailed it. NBC greenlighted their show “Best Friends Forever,” about a familiar situation, albeit flipped positions: St. Clair played the distraught friend whose husband filed for divorce, while Parham was the loyal girlfriend, welcoming St. Clair to move into her NYC apartment with open arms. The show flopped and was cancelled after the first season; its main critique, viewers found, was that the situations the women found themselves in were unfunny and handled immaturely to an annoying degree. 

“Playing House,” USA’s debut 20-minute sitcom, was the girls’ second chance at a silver screen relationship. But season one looked bleak — in an interview with The Daily Beast, St. Clair said bluntly that “their show was basically the walking dead,” due to its dismally low ratings — it seemed to many viewers that the friends’ comic genius couldn’t translate on screen, or that it was irritatingly childish, as if they were sorority sisters instead of adult women with a child. As a New York Times reviewer put it, “Maybe the writers [should] start giving them grown-up dialogue that matches their grown-up situation.”   

Despite criticism and thanks to loud praise from loyal fans, the girls held on for another season. And this time around, “Playing House” might just catch on. Since giving birth to Charlotte, maternity-pants-off Maggie is on the prowl for a new man and Emma is more than willing to be wing-woman — landing her friend on a date with “Homegrown Honey” singer Darius Rucker, along with a hundred other single men who are “Balding but Owning It” on Tinder.

There are still crotch jokes, fantasy sex dreams about the HGTV Property Brothers and Emma stuffing entire granola bars into her mouth in protest, but “Playing House” might just be growing up. Or maybe we’re just getting used to living with these people.