‘Playing House’ draws on star’s real-life cancer battle

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LOS ANGELES — The set of the cable series “Playing House” looks like an Anthropologie catalog come to life with 23 throw pillows in the living room, ceramic owls perched on shelves and chubby pine cones filling a wire basket by the fireplace.

“We wanted it to feel like girl porn,” said co-creator Jessica St. Clair, who plays Emma, a sunny-side-up party planner who returns to small-town Connecticut to help bestie Maggie (Lennon Parham) raise an infant daughter.

“Nancy Meyers is someone we always name-check,” she said, invoking the writer/director of such female-oriented flicks as “It’s Complicated” and “What Women Want.” “But we want it even more layered than that, with stuff only girls notice.”

However, in the third season, which returned to the USA Network this weekend after an 18-month hiatus, the gal pals are confronted with a crisis that brings clutter to the orderly surroundings. Halfway through the eight-episode run, Emma is diagnosed with breast cancer, a story line that mirrors St. Clair’s real-life battle with the disease — and helps transform this previously HGTV-lite sitcom into one of the summer’s more ambitious offerings.

“It’s intense,” said St. Clair, who kept her battle private, even as she returned for shooting during chemotherapy. “But it’s something Lennon and I lived through, so we decided to write about it. Our friendship in real life deepened in a way that we’re no longer two separate people. Because we only come into the writers room with what we’ve lived.

“So we thought: Can we do this, and can we make it funny? And I think we did. I’m not going to start sobbing, but I might. This season is truly a love letter to what Lennon has done for me.”

The show’s dramatic turn was vital in persuading cast member Keegan-Michael Key to return as Emma’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, even though the actor is fielding numerous big-screen offers in the wake of his success with the 2012-15 Comedy Central series “Key & Peele.”

“I’m getting back to my roots, which is drama and classical work, but some things transpire this season that I didn’t want to miss,” Key said. He appears on roughly half of the new episodes, all of which are now available on demand.

“The thing about this show is it allows me to go in every direction,” he said. “We get to take things super-seriously and we get to be as wacky as we want.”

That means Key’s character gets to dress up to carve meat at a “Game of Thrones” birthday party and endure an appetite-challenging meal at an eight-star restaurant. Also joining in on the fun are Jane Kaczmarek of “Malcolm in the Middle,” who returns as Emma’s nosy mother, and Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock,” as the world’s most unlikely ice-cream-truck vendor.

The show’s creators, who have known each other since their 20s, give their characters opportunities to remain goofy, particularly in the life-affirming season finale in which the two lip-sync as twin Tina Turners at a drag show.

“The thing I’m really proud about with this show is that we learn and change,” Parham said. “We’re not doing some of the dumb stuff we used to do; we’re doing new dumb stuff.”