“Married” has always toed the line between dark comedy and blatant mean-spiritedness. In its weaker episodes, like this week’s Season Two premiere, it leans toward the latter, with too few laugh lines to offset the show’s natural tendency to explore pretty dark territory.
In “Thanksgiving,” that dark territory is elder abuse. Russ (Nat Faxon, “Ben and Kate”) and Lina Bowman (Judy Greer, “Arrested Development”) visit the Sunset Ranch retirement community where Lina’s mother (Frances Conroy, “American Horror Story”) and stepfather Ed (M.C. Gainey, “Lost”) have a surprisingly healthy sex life. When Lina discovers that her mom often calls Ed by her ex-husband’s name, though, Lina worries that Ed is taking advantage of her dementia to satisfy his sex drive. She wants to save her mother from Ed and whisk her away to move in with the Bowman family.
Russ is understandably resistant to the prospect of having his confused mother-in-law take up residence in their home, and as Russ and Lina desperately try to act on their suspicions and solve the problem, there are some hilariously dark exchanges. Russ suggests they open up to the community’s handyman about their suspicions, but in the middle of their conversation, Lina pulls Russ aside. Greer’s delivery, as always, is on point when she incredulously replies, “You want me to explain to a handyman that Ed is raping my shell of a mother?” in full earshot of the handyman.
As funny as the escalating darkness of “Married” can be, it occasionally goes too far and relies on shock value, like in the cold open when Russ’s scantily dressed daughter tells him she’s going to meet some friends, and he replies, “(Is) one of those friends a Japanese businessman? You’re dressed like a slut.” Same goes for later, when Lina has a change of heart and defends Ed from the handyman, saying, “What rapist uses lube?” and Russ chimes in, “Lube is the opposite of rape.” The show often milks humor wonderfully from the surprising honesty of its two leads’ cynical views on marriage and sex, but in cases like these, the goal seems to be shock instead of genuine laughter. The problem isn’t that the humor makes light of serious issues like sexual assault and slut-shaming. The problem is that the dialogue just isn’t funny enough to justify the presence of those subjects.
The B-story, like most from the first season, revolves around Jess (Jenny Slate, “Obvious Child”) and her life with her older husband Shep (Paul Reiser, “Mad About You”). Jess wants her daughter to be admitted to an elite preschool where the child of her friend AJ (Brett Gelman, “Eagleheart”) goes, but she’s afraid that name-dropping AJ during an interview will do her more harm than good, since AJ is just out of rehab.
The cast of “Married” is often its greatest asset, and Slate, Gelman and Reiser have consistently done great work in their roles. As with the main story, this subplot has intermittent laughs, but it’s inconsistent, and the story follows typical sitcom beats as AJ is revealed to be a highly respected donor at the preschool and Jess ends up apologizing for pretending she didn’t know him.
The strangest part of “Thanksgiving” is that it barely touches on marriage in a show called “Married.” It’s necessary for the show’s longevity to not focus on the two main couples’ decaying marriages in every episode, but it’s an odd choice for a season premiere when last year’s premiere and finale put an unwavering spotlight on these two marriages’ plentiful shortcomings. It’s good to see Russ and Lina work together once in a while, but the weekly depressing-yet-profound quips that seemed to define the show last year are missed.
Still, there’s nothing to suggest that “Thanksgiving” is anything more than a rare misstep for the series. It still features some really funny jokes, and both stories finish with predictable, yet nice resolutions as Jess and AJ repair the tensions in their friendship and Russ and Lina recognize Ed’s genuine love for his wife. What keeps “Married” palatable in its darker episodes is a hint of hope among all the cynicism. As long as the show remembers to be melancholy instead of just mean-spirited, it should continue to deliver big laughs and understated examples of honest emotion.