Why Playing House’s Cancer Story Is So Unusually Well Done

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Lennon Parham, Jessica St. Clair Photo: Michael Yarish/USA Network

Cancer stories have familiar contours. The disease is like a well-known mythical monster, whose features are so familiar that the mere mention of the word in a story summons a laundry list of known associations. Discovery, diagnosis, chemo, possible surgery, life lessons, death. (Or love, or both.)

Cancer stories also come with a vibe. You know the vibe. It’s a mood where sad piano music plays over a montage of slow IV drips, intercut with gathered family wide shots and close-ups of brave-but-pained smiles. If you’ve seen the most recent season of This Is Us, the vibe will be familiar you to from every scene with Randall and his birth father, William.
There are tight shots of William taking his pills. He is often ill. When he’s feeling better, those scenes are tinged with the looming shadow of “sure, he’s fine now…” William has a walking-cancer vibe, and if you’re telling a cancer story, the vibe is inevitable and unavoidable.

Unavoidable, except for the excellent cancer story in this season of Playing House. It’s still a cancer story – the monster’s list of attributes is all there. But the third season of Playing House is also still the same show it’s always been. It’s a sunny half-hour comedy about female friendship, so silly and warm and odd that breasts are usually called “mammer jammers,” and one of the two leads has an alternate identity as a rude trucker dude named Bosephus, and a typical plot involves teaching the local police how to strip dance.

There are two things that make the cancer plot in Playing House so distinct from the cancer stories that have played elsewhere on TV. The first is that, improbably, it’s still a silly, warm, odd show. The monster rears its too-familiar head, but the accompanying vibe is nowhere to be found. Emma is diagnosed, is terrified, and she undergoes surgery and chemo. She has several deep, tearful conversations about the meaning of life and coming to grips with her own mortality. There are also a lot of jokes, and they’re hysterical.

In part, this is because unlike most cancer storytelling on TV, there’s almost no effort to make the physical elements of Emma’s illness a part of the show. When Christina Braverman is diagnosed with cancer toward the end of Parenthood, her cancer arc is distinctly bodily. She loses her hair and gets a wig. Her chemo side effects are notable, and occasionally very scary. She is very visibly altered — of course she is. She has cancer. William from This Is Us is similarly affected, especially toward the end as his breathing grows labored and his energy gives out. Walter White’s cough gets pretty bad for a while there. Izzy on Grey’s Anatomy becomes incredibly frail.
The key moment in Samantha’s cancer plot on Sex and the City is when her boyfriend shaves his head in solidarity. Physical deterioration and baldness are familiar parts of the cancer monster.

There is no attempt at physical realism on Playing House. No baldness. Very little pain. It’s not cancer as seen in a mirror. It’s cancer in translation, presented through the show’s self-assured and unapologetic sense of humor. Maggie picks out Emma’s breast implants, in a scene taken directly from the real lives of writer-creator-actors Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, and St. Clair’s own cancer diagnosis. While Emma’s experiencing chemotherapy nausea, everyone accidentally gets high on some marijuana-laced baklava. One of Emma’s meaning-of-life-post-cancer chats takes place while high, in conversation with a too-intense, hatchet-bearing self-defense instructor named Cookie. The strip-dancing police officers return in a hospital waiting room.

It’s not that the humor or Emma’s cute recovery PJs come off as treating cancer lightly, or making Emma’s illness the butt of the show’s jokes. The show doesn’t ignore the physical ramifications of cancer, but it doesn’t prioritize them either. And as a result, Playing House has more room for thinking about cancer’s emotional aftermath. It is the rare cancer story that’s more interested in how to deal with cancer as a crisis of friendship and the self than it is in the cancer itself.

The ability to have that focus is partly a luxury of the genre. It’s a comedy, so we all know it’s safe to laugh. Playing House can set aside the physical aspect of cancer because we all know Emma survives. But that doesn’t mean that the show spares us from really confronting how scary this monster is, either. Without spectacle of a bald head and a chemotherapy recliner, all we’re left with is Emma’s anger and fear, and Maggie’s scrambling, frantic trip to Paper Source so she can make her friend a cancer binder.

Playing House’s smallness also works in its favor. In big TV dramas, cancer tends to be one plot among many. It’s either the single story in a largely episodic structure — see the lump in Edith Bunker’s breast in the All in the Family Christmas special, or the cancer scare on 90210 — or it’s one thread in an ensemble narrative. This is particularly true on recent dramas like Parenthood and This Is Us. Even though those shows lean heavily into cancer and its accompanying tragedy vibe, they also let audiences escape those stories by shifting among multiple characters. Weep for Randall and William, but then take a break with a flashback about Rebecca and Jack. The same goes for Christina Braverman’s cancer story, and also Dana’s on The L Word.

For Playing House, Maggie and Emma’s friendship is the story. Other things happen, but there’s no escaping that foundational premise for the series. So there’s no escape from Emma’s cancer, either. Maggie and Emma find the cancer together, the result of a silly friendship prank that involves embarrassment and false pretenses and good intentions. They cope with the cancer together. And when they’re apart, Emma’s diagnosis and the way they’re both learning how to handle it is still the primary subject. Playing House will let you laugh at cancer, in other words, but it won’t let you look away for very long.

The story is great, no doubt, because Parham and St. Clair lived through this themselves, and they bring firsthand experience to the writing. But mostly it’s great because they figured out how to build Emma’s illness into the framework of what the show already was — a portrait of the friendship between these two women, and an exploration of what friendship and selfhood looks like even when really hard things happen. Playing House’s cancer story is great because it’s the same show it’s always been — funny, small, and sincere. It’s still about weird alter egos, and learning self-defense from your ex’s new girlfriend, and motherhood, and body rolls. And mammer jammers, even when they’re full of cancer.

Playing House’s Cancer Story Is Unusually Well Done