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Playing House's Emotional Cancer Storyline Is More Than a Sob Story

The lead actresses explain the surprisingly hilarious arc

Kaitlin Thomas

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the third season ofPlaying House. Read at your own risk.]

From the moment it premiered, the heartwarming USA series Playing House has mixed humor and honest, heartfelt emotion to tell a story about the long-lasting bonds of female friendship, and how those bonds can form the foundation of a family. The long-awaited third season, available to watch via Video On Demand and USANetwork.com now, sees the series reach new emotional heights as Emma (Jessica St. Clair) and Maggie (Lennon Parham) take on the Big C amid burgeoning relationships and comfortingly familiar Pinewood shenanigans.

The cancer storyline mirrors St. Clair's real life battle with breast cancer -- and Parham's role in helping her through it -- down to the treatment Emma receives and a self-proclaimed resemblance to Dog the Bounty Hunter following chemotherapy. Although the decision to include St. Clair's personal battle in the show was a difficult one, both she and Parham knew they had to tell the story of their experience.

"We've always written what we've lived," St. Clair wrote in her emotional open letter in which she first revealed her diagnosis. "And our real story is that with the help of her best friend, and the people who love her, my character is able to get through the treatment and actually emerge somehow happier and more fulfilled than she was before she was diagnosed."

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Playing House is not the first comedy to verge into more overt dramatic territory; in recent years there has been a trend toward lighthearted series breaking free from the confines of traditional comedy tropes to explore some of the more challenging and difficult aspects of human existence. It's made for richer, more honest storytelling that creates a connection between writer and audience. It's also something that St. Clair and Parham have been striving for since the beginning.

"Honestly -- and it's always been this way, even when we weren't tackling such a tough subject like breast cancer -- we've always wanted to create television that makes people feel less alone, that comforts people in a hard time, because that's what we turn to television for," St. Clair explained to TVGuide.com.

​Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham, Playing House

Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham, Playing House

Nicole Wilder/USA Network

Emma's storyline -- which kicks off in the fourth episode of the eight-episode season -- starts off with some reliably ridiculous comedy. While pretending to be a patient at the hospital where Maggie works in order to play matchmaker for Maggie and a sexy British doctor (Ben Willbond), Emma receives a physical that eventually reveals a tumor in her breast. The season then follows Emma's diagnosis and reaction -- she starts to google ways to die before 40 and struggles to find the perfect outfit to wear to meet her oncologist (Laurie Metcalf) -- before leading into her surgery, which is told from Maggie's perspective as a caretaker because Emma is under anesthesia.

The remaining three episodes are a return to the series' more traditionally lighthearted fare -- think a Game of Thrones-themed birthday party where Keegan-Michael Key's Mark dresses up as Khal Drogo, or a flat tire that sends the girls on an unexpected adventure involving drag queens and lip syncing to Tina Turner. But these later episodes aren't the show shrugging off Emma's cancer or trying to move past it, they take care to show how she is changing or has been changed by her experience, while acknowledging that the themes being depicted are universal.

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In the first episode post-surgery, Emma joins Maggie and Bird Bones (Lindsay Sloane) for craft night to escape Zach (Zach Woods), who's become a little smothery and is impeding her ability to watch a movie. It is during craft night, something Emma has generally always avoided, that she discovers the absolute toughest woman she knows, Bruce's new girlfriend Cookie (Lauren Weedman), is also a cancer survivor. The two end up having a heart to heart about their experience after accidentally eating some special baklava.

"I'm very close to my character in real life, and the hardest thing for me was letting people help me," St. Clair explains. "[But] the universe has forced me to let people help me. And once I pushed through the fear, and it was intense, of letting people see me -- I mean, I didn't necessarily want Lennon to see me at chemo because I didn't want to put anyone out -- [I realized] you have to surrender and let people help you."

Once she let people in, St. Clair found she was actually quite grateful.

"Getting helped is the best thing in the world, because you see how much people love you and how they want to help you and how we help each other, especially as women," she says. "And that is the most powerful thing you will ever experience in your entire life. I wake up so grateful every day for my friends."

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While the decision to devote only one full episode specifically to the cancer arc might be a bit surprising for some viewers -- it's fairly uncommon in TV, actually, because most writers try to squeeze a cancer diagnosis for every emotionally manipulative drop -- it's a wise choice for Playing House, which has made a name for itself as a heartwarming comedy grounded by an easy going friendship. By weaving the recovery process into the show's familiar shenanigans and not focusing solely on Emma's cancer battle, the series is able to maintain its sense of self -- and sense of humor -- while still growing and evolving alongside its characters.

But even if the series wasn't grounded in comedy, the decision not to see Emma physically going through chemo or Maggie continually struggle to support her best friend in the wake of treatment doesn't mean we don't know it's happening. It's just that there are other ways to show progress. It also suggests the idea that having cancer doesn't have to define who someone is. It certainly changes people, but not necessarily in the ways we might expect: Emma is not more fragile as a result of having had cancer, she is just more open and more aware of what she wants.


Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, Playing House

Robin Von Swank/USA Network

And the series has more than earned the decision to jump from a heart-rending episode depicting Emma's double mastectomy to one in which Emma and Maggie and their friends accidentally ingest an intense strain of marijuana during a lady's craft night. The groundwork for this type of emotional storytelling was laid early on -- going all the way back to the show's first season -- so that the tonal shift doesn't cause whiplash. By the time we reach this point in Emma and Maggie's story, it doesn't feel like an error in judgment, it feels like simple progress.

Still, while everything may look and feel seamless onscreen, the truth is, writing their real life experience into the show wasn't easy for St. Clair, who called this season "the hardest" and "scariest" thing she and Parham have ever done. Luckily they were bolstered by the love and support they've received from the show's loyal fans -- known as Jammers -- over the years. The connection the two women feel with the show's fanbase is what ultimately made them feel like they could be vulnerable enough to tell their story this season, which has, despite the obvious difficulties, also turned out to be the thing they're the most proud of as well.

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And they should be proud. St. Clair and Parham have managed once again to strike the perfect balance of comedy and heart, this time while telling the show's most delicate story yet. By digging into something deeply personal they have told an emotionally rewarding story that's also universal.

Playing House airs Fridays at 11/10c on USA. The entire third season is also available to watch on VOD, USANetwork.com and the USA Now app right now.

Additional reporting by Sadie Gennis