Wednesday, September 21, 2011


In the last few years, TV show creators have put a heavy focus on family sitcoms, like "Modern Family," "Raising Hope," and "The Middle," and workplace sitcoms, like "Parks & Recreation," "Party Down," and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." Some fared better than others. However, the one sitcom sub-genre that's had the most trouble adding to its brood is the ensemble sitcom, which are better known as "Friends" clones.

Since the end of "Friends," very few shows have successfully befriended its viewers, making them apart of the gang. Those that have set themselves apart by adding a twist. "How I Met Your Mother" (2005 - ) is telling a (really long) love story from the guy's point of view. "Community" (2009 - ) has theme episodes that make community college—actually, college in general—seem a lot more eventful than it actually is. "My Boys" (2006-2010) focused on beer-loving, poker-playing, sports lovers, one of which happened to be a girl. And "Happy Endings" (2011- ) starts off with a breakup mid-wedding, throwing the group dynamic off balance.

The reason it's so difficult to recreate the magic that was "Friends" is that it's not like a romantic comedy where you have to manufacture chemistry between two people, or a family/office comedy where sometimes it's funnier when the characters don't like each other. In order for a series like "Friends" to last, the entire cast has to seem like they've been good friends for a long time, all of their personalities and backstories have to be interesting, and, most importantly, at least two of the characters have to be likable enough for the audience to want to be friends with. The way a family sitcom allows viewers to laugh at a family that's worse than theirs and an office sitcom allows viewers to commiserate with an equally underappreciated employee, the ensemble sitcom should allow viewers to feel initiated into a private club—albeit along with millions of other viewers. It's what's called a post-modern family, made up of people who want to love each other vs. people who have to love each other.
Following those guidelines while watching this new ensemble series about a heartbroken girl who moves in with three single guys she met on Craigslist after being brutally dumped while naked, a la Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I found that it's lacking a few essential components. Sure, it's less frantic than "Perfect Couples" and more interesting than "Mad Love," but much like "100 Questions," most of the ensemble cast is dead weight. Thank God Damon Wayans, Jr. stuck with "Happy Endings," because his lines are ten times funnier on that series, as is his character's personality and the dynamic he has with his gay best friend and type-A wife. The self-proclaimed Lothario Schmidt (Max Greenfield from "Greek" and "Ugly Betty"), who should carry that douchebag jar they force him to contribute to around his neck, is a lot more annoying than he is funny. He pretty much tipped the douche-o-meter when he said a girl's name with an Italian accent—with the stereotypical bunched fingers gesture. And his even douchier friends—yes, it is physically possible to be douchier—are the reason abortion and beer goggles were created—for self-preservation and tolerance. Adam Pally has a similar character on "Happy Endings" as the inappropriate comic relief who is occasionally reprimanded for crossing a race and/or gender line. The keyword there is "occasionally," not every time he talks to, about, or near a woman. Maybe we cut his character Max slack because he's gay, but there's a certain way to make Schmidt's type of desperate-loser character likable and the proof is in Aziz Ansari's performance on "Parks and Recreation."
After the first episode, Wayans will be replaced by newcomer Lamorne Morris, but I think the producers should just nix both characters and add Rashida Jones as a lesbian (loved her in Our Idiot Brother) and another actor who can handle douchey dialogue without being off-putting. Someone like Neil Patrick Harris. But I'm getting off topic. The point is the entire cast isn't a wash. Zooey Deschanel (500 Days of Summer) did a great job of resizing her lovable charm for the small screen and she has impeccable comic timing. And the whole idea of a beautiful girl putting on glasses and suddenly being branded as this undateable dork wasn't condescending this time, because she really, really, really is a dork. I swear on a stack of Tolkien. Her love interest Nick (Jake M. Johnson from Paper Heart and No Strings Attached), a cross between David Krumholtz ("Numb3rs") and Penn Badgley ("Gossip Girl") and the group's voice of reason, has just the right amount of low self-esteem and obsessive romanticism to make viewers root for him, and essentially for them as a future couple. Although, they could dab a little more makeup around his eyes. He looked as depressed as she was behaving. One friend I would keep though is her model friend Cecilia (Hannah Simone from "WCG Ultimate Gamer"). Why? Um, because she's smoking hot. She's so hot if you set her on fire, she wouldn't even feel it. I could stare at her all day and I'm straight.
The writers did a great job of creating interesting story elements, from the flirtation lessons to her obsession with Dirty Dancing to the spontaneous creation of her own theme song. They also succeeded in making Zooey's character Jess a fully three-dimensional character. They just need to figure out a way to make the rest of them just as interesting so we don't grow weary of Jess's constant cuteness. Can you imagine what "Friends" would've been like if it was centered around kooky Phoebe, neurotic Monica, or commitment phobic Rachel, or if "How I Met Your Mother" was all about Ted and only Ted, Lord help us, or if pop culture fanatic Abed was the sole focus of "Community"? They have to pepper in the eclectic characters, otherwise mainstream Middle America will tune out. Even family sitcoms know to do that, never having too much of the man-child Phil Dunphy ("Modern Family") or the senile grandmother Maw Maw ("Raising Hope").
I'll continue watching though because I want to see where this love story goes. It's not often that you witness a declaration of love in which both parties are unaware that a declaration is being made. Serenading her with her favorite song on the date she was ditched on was a very powerful foreshadowing, enough to keep me interested. Plus, I wish Zooey the best of luck, and I hope the new guy changes the dynamic for the better next week.

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