The Force of Nature That Is Margo Martindale

And the lame sitcom she’s stuck in, The Millers.

Will Arnett and Margo Martindale in The Millers.

Will Arnett and Margo Martindale in The Millers.

Courtesy of Richard Foreman/CBS

The Millers, a new sitcom that premieres tonight on CBS, is an object lesson in the power of incandescent talent. At first, the show is terrible. Will Arnett, starring as Nathan Miller, a newly divorced newscaster, shows up at his sister Debbie’s house for breakfast. Nathan and Debbie regale the studio audience with lame cracks about the disgusting nature of smoothies and the sagginess of older women’s breasts, as a laugh track mirthlessly yuks it up. And then the phone rings. It is a Myrtle Beach, S.C., area code. Nathan’s brother-in-law hands the phone off as if it’s radioactive. Certainly, some powerful force is on the line. It is Nathan’s mother, Carol, played by Margo Martindale. And just like that, The Millers goes from being one of the worst shows of the new season to being one of the worst shows of the new season with its very best performance.

Margo Martindale has been acting steadily since the early ’90s, but her big break came just two years ago, when she starred in Justified as the fearsome, moonshine-brewing Mags Bennett, a performance for which she won an Emmy. Martindale is the kind of journeyman actress who shows up in old reruns of nearly everything (Dexter, Hannah Montana, Law & Order) but only now do you go, “Hey! That’s Margo Martindale!” Since her Emmy victory, that exclamation has been getting a workout: She has appeared in The Americans, New Girl, Masters of Sex, and Suits and has a part in the upcoming presumed Oscar contender August: Osage County. Her appearance in The Millers has been the cause of much handwringing among TV critics, fearful that the talented Martindale will get trapped, just like Kat Dennings and Melissa McCarthy before her, in a long-running, mediocre CBS sitcom, when all of her skills could be put to better—though probably not more lucrative—uses.

Margo Martindale in Justified.
Margo Martindale in Justified.

Courtesy of Prashant Gupta/FX

Martindale’s character in The Millers is a commanding ballbuster, an emasculator of her husband, Tom (Beau Bridges), and the “puppet master” of her children. In the pilot, she and Tom descend upon their offspring, only to learn that Nathan has secretly gotten divorced. The news inspires Tom, who has been henpecked for 43 year of marriage, to announce that he is leaving Carol. Tom goes to live with Debbie, and Carol stays with Nathan, where she cuts his toenails in his sleep and interrupts his house parties. If she sounds like a pain in the ass, she absolutely is, but Carol, like the characters Martindale has specialized in since Justified, is appealing because she doesn’t care if you think so. The intimidating, judgmental women she plays are not softies deep down inside—they are hard as bedrock. This firmness is what keeps their outer braggadocio from being an act. It’s why their flashes of vulnerability rightly evaporate. And it’s what makes them, however cold, also maternal: In a crisis, Carol may not hug you, but she will help you solve your problem. Her mother knows best—and that means that the fathers, sons, and daughters around her decidedly do not.

In The Millers, Martindale fake-retches, farts, eats ice cream while walking on a treadmill, and performs the climactic dance sequence from Dirty Dancing with regal authority. She absolutely refuses to condescend to the material, no matter how condescension-worthy it is. (Dirty Dancing, still?) Instead, she reaches down into the sitcom muck and pulls the hoary situations and the jokes up to, almost, her imperious level. She is like the impossibly chic woman who can wear a garbage bag and make it work, except instead of a garbage bag, she’s contending with “You’re doing it wrong!” masturbation jokes.

The difficulty of this feat is made plain by her very talented co-stars’ inability to do any equal elevating. Bridges’ character, Tom, is referred to as “Forrest Gump.” He’s dim-witted and spacey, a man who outsourced his brain to his wife and feels resentful about it. Bridges is trying, but unlike Martindale, you can see him trying. Arnett, meanwhile, doesn’t even appear to be trying. He’s been casting around for a leading role in a sitcom for years; after signing on to creatively interesting shows that ended up failing (Running Wilde, Up All Night), he has selected a sure thing. He seems exactly as enthused about it as you might expect a person paying his bills to be. His performance is flatter than a pancake after it has been rolled over by a Mack truck, with none of the smarm, sex appeal, or humor of his Gob Bluth. The Millers is ostensibly his show—he’s the guy in all the scenes, and it is told from his viewpoint—but Martindale steals it from him so wholly it feels like watching a stick-up in which you are rooting for the robber.

Martindale is so great she even sells a scene about one of Carol’s silent but deadly farts. (The Millers has been criticized for its overreliance on fart jokes, seen as an example of its lowbrow, simpleminded humor. The Millers is lowbrow and simpleminded, but it’s not the farts’ fault. As James Poniewozik points out,  Louis C.K. and Chaucer have enjoyed flatulence humor.) “Some people think they’re funny,” Carol informs him.

“When you can hear them, people think they’re funny,” Nathan replies. “When you can’t, they’re just gross.”

“You’re acting silly,” Carol dismisses him. It’s a perfect little meta-moment: Carol refuses to be embarrassed by farts just as thoroughly as Margo Martindale refuses to be embarrassed playing a scene about farts. She’s so good at it, I only worry she’ll be stuck farting on The Millers for years to come.