Andrew Gurland sighs. "Maybe we shouldn't have aired it, but I think it was good. It gave a lot of people the wrong idea of what the show was."
He's talking about the pilot for his FX sitcom, Married, which concludes its second season on Thursday, October 1. The pilot aired in the summer of 2014, critics savaged it (though I liked it), and pretty much nobody went back to reevaluate.
The show in Married's pilot was vastly different from what the show ultimately became. In some ways, the series is one of the foremost examples of this era of Too Much Television. Even five years ago, it would have been reevaluated — even if those reevaluations were negative in tone. But now, nobody has any time to go back.
The overcrowding extends beyond critics, too. Viewers mostly seem to have missed the show, and it's highly possible it will be canceled. The second season's best episode — and probably the best episode the show ever produced — debuted to an audience of around 250,000 people on its first airing.
Welcome to the world of Peak TV, where first impressions are the only ones that matter.
Low-concept comedies often struggle
Of course, it's incredibly likely that Married would have struggled just as much a decade ago. The series' premise is all in its title. It follows the low-key adventures of Russ and Lina Bowman (expertly played by Nat Faxon and Judy Greer), a husband and wife in their late 30s and, eventually, early 40s, with kids, a mortgage, and a variety of friends at assorted marital stages of their own.
"This is about as lo-fi as you can get. It's just very normal problems, normal relationships, normal marriage life," Gurland said.
And lo-fi is anathema to the modern TV landscape, which values volume and noise and premises that can be explained in a sentence. There used to be long-running shows in this vein, like thirtysomething and Party of Five, but that was in a universe with far fewer providers of TV content. Now there needs to be something big to cut through the clutter of every other show on TV.
The irony here is that the much-maligned pilot actually had the sort of noisy high concept that could have stood out. Lina, exhausted by her life, gave Russ permission to seek out an affair. He didn't succeed, and the show immediately dropped the plot point. But it defined the show in the eyes of many as a show about people who were married but hated each other, a TV genre that stopped bearing fruit long, long ago.
"That's all people held onto was the open marriage part of it, as opposed to the execution, which was, 'Oh wow, these are real people,'" Gurland tells me.
And to be fair to the show's detractors, there's not really a need for more stories about relatively affluent white people navigating the struggles of modern matrimony. (Just on TV right now, we have this show and HBO's Togetherness, which are good in very different ways but superficially seem to have the exact same premise.) Yet if we have to have them — and TV executives will probably keep greenlighting them forever and ever, amen — then I would rather have shows like this one than something like Modern Family, which seems terrified of anything real.
But here's the other thing: Married isn't about how marriage is long and tiring. It's about how marriage can be your salvation.
Married is slight, but winning
Gurland and the writers ditched the premise of the pilot for good reason. He didn't want to write a show about Russ having a new hookup every week, he tells me, and he also realized very quickly that the center of the show was Faxon and Greer.
The actors are best known for being the funniest thing about other projects but never quite taking center stage. They're the consummate funny best friends, which makes Married's decision to treat their characters with a level of emotional reality all the more rewarding in terms of their performances.
Very early in season one, the show tapped into a kind of lived-in quality in the pair's relationship — a sense that they'd been to hell and back in the parenting of their children, to the degree that they'd lost each other slightly. By season's end, the two had contemplated divorce but realized there was still a deep sea of emotion between them.
Season two, then, has been at once looser and much better structured. It's contrasted the long-lasting relationship of Russ and Lina with the disintegrating marriage of their friends Shep and Jess (Paul Reiser and Jenny Slate), as well as the burgeoning relationship of other friends AJ and Abby (Brett Gelman and Sarah Burns). It's turned its slightness — to the degree that many episodes aren't even 20 minutes long — into an asset. This feels less like a heavily plotted sitcom and more like a funny story a friend might tell you about her own life.
When the show goes in for more standard sitcom plotting (as when Russ and Lina suspect a murderer has moved in nearby), it can feel strained. But in the moments when it simply sits back and watches these people interact, Married feels like the sort of thing TV needs more of — small and intimate and perfectly tuned.
The show's women are more sharply defined this season
The second season has also served the show's women much better. Though Jess and Shep's marriage falls apart because she's feeling disenchanted with being one half of a May/December romance and the roles suburban motherhood has thrust upon her, the episode in which the two have their marriage-ending argument ("Guardians," the aforementioned best, lowest-rated episode) takes her feelings completely seriously.
Though the storyline was inspired by Slate wishing to leave the show (in favor of her own FX sitcom), necessity spurred some of the best work the show has ever done. And yet the argument that ends this marriage is the show in a nutshell, less a lamp-throwing barn burner than a calm, rational discussion between adults that masks an ocean of pain and hurt.
Season two has also done a better job of examining Lina as an individual, rather than through the prism of her husband. Gurland says this, too, was intentional. The pilot was written from an intensely masculine point of view, and thus he's been working to hire more women in the writers' room, especially between seasons one and two.
"Because the pilot was in that point of view, we were constantly making that adjustment to be catching up with Lina's point of view," he says.
The second season has also dug more deeply into the characters' relationship to parenting — both of their own children and the parenting they received from their parents, who are now old enough to need their children to take care of them. Again, none of this is wildly new territory for a TV show, but Married gives it a bittersweet spin, especially in a terrific midseason episode where Lina decides she doesn't want to celebrate Mother's Day.
Finding the show's voice — just in time to worry about cancellation
Of course, it doesn't matter that the show has found its voice if it's just going to get canceled. (When asked about the show's chances for renewal, Gurland says he doesn't know but also jokes, "I'm not making any large purchases.") Outside of episodic recaps at the A.V. Club, major outlets have mostly ignored Married this season. Metacritic lists just three reviews.
This is not to suggest an abrogation of duty on the part of critics — after all, look at how long it's taken me to write about the show this season — but, rather, to suggest how in a crowded marketplace, there's simply no time to keep up with everything. There are shows — really good shows, even — that simply slip off the radar.
So consider this your warning: Check out Married. The season finale is good, and the episodes before it were even better. If you have Hulu or FX Now, you can go and look back at some of the show's best half hours (including season one's "The Old Date" and "Halloween"), and you absolutely should.
TV thrives when it has stories pitched at all levels of volume, and it needs the quiet calm right alongside the noise.
Married wraps up its second season on FX at 10 pm Eastern on Thursday, October 1. The first season is available on Hulu. Season two is available on FX Now.