There hasn’t been a truly great movie rom-com in an awfully long time. There are any number of reasons for this — the crippling of the mid-budget movie, general cultural malaise, superheroes. But today is not about lamenting problems. It’s about presenting solutions. And the perfect possible solution to our rom-com dearth comes to us from television, where a mini rom-com boom is afoot. America — nay, world: Our next great romantic lead is Keegan-Michael Key. Make it so.
Key’s brilliant work on Key and Peele — which ends its five-season run on Wednesday — has proven his acumen as a writer and performer (true even in his MADtv days), and the fact that the show is going out on such a high note demonstrates his self-restraint as a creator and executive producer. Plus, he made a patchy goatee still seem striking on Fargo. All of this can be said of Jordan Peele as well. But the distinguishing factor here for Key is Playing House, where he plays the upstanding, occasionally uptight Mark, the long-arc love interest for Jessica St. Clair’s Emma. He’s her high-school sweetheart, and he’s stayed friends with her lifelong bestie Maggie (Lennon Parham), even after Emma moved away and came back. Over the show’s 16 episodes, Mark has been a dutiful police officer, a supportive friend, a doting sociological uncle to Maggie’s baby, a community-theater enthusiast, though just a so-so husband to his wife, Tina, who Maggie and Emma call “Bird Bones.”
On tonight’s “Officer of the Year,” he is also a stone-cold fox. (That episode and the season finale, “Celebrate Me Scones,” air tonight, but are already available on-demand.)
Here, Emma is running the annual policeman’s ball, which Mark is attending with Maggie (just as friends). Watch this one minute and tell me you wouldn’t watch an entire movie of this:
“Officer” almost works as a stand-alone 20-minute romantic comedy even if you’ve never seen a full episode of the light and delightful Playing House, though honestly, remedy that: Even if you marathoned the entire series, it’s still only around five hours of show. The episode is a high point for Playing House, as focused and driven as any in the series, but still buoyed by the show’s overarching good nature. Everyone on the show is decent, including the antagonists; even Mark’s divorce from Tina was gracious and tender.
Part of House’s appeal is how much of the humor is for the other characters’ benefit. Yes, some oddball behavior is there just to make the audience laugh, but more often than not, funny lines are delivered within the universe of the show as characters joke around with one another. The cast glows with affection, but Key in particular seems to burn extra bright.
That’s an essential aspect of a romantic lead, that warmth and closeness. Lots of good actors can play action leads or dramatic leads, but rom-com lead is a different beast: Humor helps, but it’s the low-key vibe of adoration that really makes a rom-com work. Harry worships Sally, even as they drive each other crazy. It’s not an overwhelming feeling, and it’s not even a grandly stated one until it has to be, but a constant, background-radiation devotion is essential to making a rom-com tick. (The flip side: Straight female rom-com leads need to portray trust. That’s why a lot of the male leads tend to be jerks; “Sure, he’s a dick, but he’s not a liar.” Then the crisis occurs when he does lie. But then he’s contrite! And the trust returns. Starring Hugh Grant.) On Playing House, Mark is often frustrated with Emma, sometimes disappointed in her, sometimes nudging her to be better, sometimes goofing around with her like college roommates. And yet it doesn’t slip into that “oy, too much” zone because Key keeps that admiration right on the exact amount of heat on the back burner: still cooking, but at a simmer state.
In the next year or two, Key has a pretty full dance card. But Keegan-Michael Key is meant to be running through airports, or showing up at a funeral to be supportive even if you’re broken up, or opening a rival business. Police Academy reboots are not enough.