Why can't we be "Friends"?

Among the new fall TV sitcoms are predictably miserable rip-offs ("Coupling"), dubious star vehicles (Kelly Ripa, anyone?) and cartoon families -- and a few that seem to get the tricky comedy formula just right.

By Heather Havrilesky

Published September 19, 2003 7:29PM (EDT)

For the past five years, television networks have spent hundreds of millions of dollars searching for the next "Friends" or the next "Seinfeld." Even though blockbuster sitcoms usually either grow organically from the stubborn visions of comic geniuses like Larry David or evolve slowly over several seasons through the concerted efforts of talented writers who manage to resist the siren call of mediocrity at every turn, that doesn't stop the networks from chasing down bad shows that look like "Will & Grace" or "Everybody Loves Raymond" from a distance, if you squint your eyes a certain way.

Forget that the stars had to align themselves perfectly for these hit shows to come together, forget that they still might have failed without great direction, exceptional casting and a lot of network support, forget that it took a lot of time and patience for them to hit their strides. Yes, it did take time, even for "Seinfeld." (Remember when Jerry Seinfeld smiled when he was mad, and it wasn't his trademark yet? The rest of the cast were panicked over it.)

The networks have gone on chasing their tails nonetheless, looking for sitcoms that have shallow similarities to hits instead of locating writers and show-runners with passionate visions and original concepts. Granted, it was easier in the '80s, when passionate vision was an eight-ball of high-grade cocaine away. But nothing explains the relentless search for imitators of all stripes who, by their very nature, are destined to produce empty, hollowed-out, inorganic comedies in which the story lines are fantastical and the dialogue is muddled by off-topic wisecracking and zany high jinks that an audience of kindergartners would find absurdly unrealistic.

At least this year it looks like the networks have finally given up on reproducing "Seinfeld." Gone are the shows about nothing populated by neurotic losers that turned out, not surprisingly, to be not merely worse than "Seinfeld" but worse than most of the sitcoms ever made. Instead, the powers that be are determined to rehash one or two popular formulas over and over again. Dysfunctional family dynamics and/or wildly selfish characters living in close quarters with their relatives top the list of favorites this fall, followed closely by big-city sophisticates living among zany small-town folk, with 30-somethings tackling sex and other edgy subjects bringing up the rear. As difficult as it is to predict how good a show will be after just one or two episodes, here's a glimpse at a handful of new living rooms hitting your living room this fall.

"Happy Family" (NBC, Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m.)

NBC's "Happy Family" features a couple, played by Christine Baranski and John Larroquette, whose grown children offer three different flavors of Loser. Eldest son Todd (Jeff Davis) is engaged to one woman while sleeping with another; younger son Tim (Tyler Francavilla) is having an affair with the family's next-door neighbor, who's at least 20 years older than him; and daughter Sara (Melanie Paxson) spends all of her free time at her parents' house, whining loudly about the unavailability of eligible men. Thanks to the talents of Baranski and Larroquette, each of whom has a way of squeezing every ounce of comedy out of each line, the show's energy transcends the dead-end nature of its central hook ("Are our kids really this screwed up and if so, did we screw them up?"), which grows old halfway through the second episode. Davis and Francavilla show a lot of comedic promise so far, but Paxson's character is just barely fleshed out, and what is there ? the whiny, needy, aging single girl -- is far too clichéd and too pathetic to be enjoyable or funny. The story lines here are at least organic -- the comedy arises out of situations, and doesn't depend on smartass remarks to keep it afloat -- which means that "Happy Family" might eventually evolve into a solid show, although what they'll do with these characters once the flashy mishaps of the first few weeks expire is anybody's guess.

"Arrested Development" (Fox, Sundays at 9:30 p.m.)

For a slightly stranger twist on the same insane family theme, there's Fox's "Arrested Development," a single-camera sitcom about an absurdly dysfunctional, manipulative, conniving family. Michael (Jason Bateman) is a widower raising his son alone while enduring the twisted machinations of his flesh and blood, a wealthy group of schemers and freaks whose selfishness and back-stabbing never fails to horrify him. "Arrested Development" has a seriously talented cast (Jeffrey Tambor plays the dad, Jessica Walter the mom, Portia de Rossi the sister and David Cross the brother-in-law) and features unconventional, cartoonish plot twists. In one scene, a clueless Cross mistakenly boards a boat filled with gay activists, and in another, teenaged cousins plan to kiss each other in order to freak out their parents. Talented actors aside, though, it's tough to tell how the writers will maintain the high pitch of madcap action established in the first two episodes while increasing our emotional investment in a gaggle of caricatures.

"Two and a Half Men" (CBS, Mondays at 9:30 p.m.)

Alan (John Cryer) is in denial about his marriage falling apart until his wife tells him she's gay (this revelation is the big wacky punch line of the fall season, sadly enough). He considers moving in with his controlling mom, but then his ne'er-do-well bachelor brother (Charlie Sheen) warms up to his lovable smartass kid (Angus T. Jones) and invites them both to live with him. Once the snappy-insult-hurling kid and the uptight, girly-man brother move in, this show should land somewhere between "Diff'rent Strokes" and "The Odd Couple," only it won't be nearly as good as either. Cryer's sort of whiny, Sheen is flatly surly and the kid is unrealistically clever. To be fair, the pilot's not awful, but how many times can the kid help Sheen pick up babes at the supermarket, then beat a bunch of his friends at poker?

"Hope & Faith" (ABC, Fridays at 9 p.m.)

Sure, the mere mention of a "Kelly Ripa vehicle" might drive you to drink, but the millions of viewers who've swooned over this blond baby-making machine for the past two years on "Live With Regis and Kelly" should be anxiously awaiting the premiere of "Hope & Faith." Here's that clashing-sibling thing again: Faith Ford ("Murphy Brown") plays the uptight, law-abiding sister (Faith) with the husband and the three cookie-cutter sitcom kids, while Ripa plays the slutty actress sister (Hope) with the go-go boots and the heart of gold. Since every sitcom this fall is gunning for "edgy," this essentially dorky show is littered with oddly smutty material that may not play well with the squeaky clean "Reege" fanatics. Let's take, for example, that scene where Ford and Ripa get into a big, messy food fight and Ripa has chocolate sauce smeared all over her cleavage! Visually, the action is just a hair away from that Miller Lite catfight-in-a-pool commercial, but the dialogue waivers shakily between "Full House" cutesiness and "Will & Grace" mud-slinging.

"She started it! With her Miss Superiority Complex!" Hope yelps. "Me?" Faith squeals. "What about you, Miss 'I'm a famous soap star with a Daytime Emmy and ... big, fake boobs?!" Ford has great comic timing, so it's too bad she's playing the straight role in this one, while Ripa, who looks like an evil doll from some twisted bit of Japanimation, gets most of the punch lines. There are a few laughs, but with the challenge of a Friday night slot, it's tough to have much faith in this hopelessly gawky sitcom.

"The Ortegas" (Fox, Sundays at 8:30 p.m.)

Just as I've slammed the networks' copycat mentality, along comes "The Ortegas," the strangest, most original show around, and I wish I could say that it works, because it would fit my thesis perfectly. Unfortunately, it's just incredibly strange. Alejandro (Al Madrigal) is a guy whose parents bought him a talk-show studio so he could fulfill his dream of becoming a talk-show host. Each guest arrives at the front door and meets his mother (Terri Hoyos), father (Cheech Marin) and grandmother (Renee Victor), and then walks through the house to a talk-show set with a live audience. After Mom foists some homemade Mexican food at the guest, Alejandro sits behind the desk, the family sits on a couch onstage and they all fire questions at the guest at once, pausing only to argue amongst themselves. Mother to guest Howie Mandel: "You are Canadian and you are Jewish. Can you eat Canadian bacon?" As the guests leave, Cheech asks if Mandel can take Denise Richards home to save him the car-service costs. Then the family discusses how the show went. How did the show go? What kind of show is this? Where am I?

"I'm With Her" (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m.)

While we love to say that life imitates art, the sad fact is that crappy art does a bad imitation of life far more often. Based on creator Chris Henchy's real-life marriage to Brooke Shields, "I'm With Her" explores the awfully taxing business of tagging around with someone who's internationally known and richer than God. Poor little Patrick Owen (David Sutcliffe) is just a humble schoolteacher with a crappy apartment until that fateful day when the dog owned by movie star Alex Young (Teri Polo) bites him on the ass. Suddenly his life is turned upside down by the flash of cameras and the pushy antics of celebrity reporters. Sounds awful, doesn't it? Strangely enough, "I'm With Her" has its charms. The jokes are reasonably amusing, the story lines are solid and the possibilities seem unlimited, considering the countless absurd real-life situations Henchy can mine for inspiration. True, Patrick's smartass friend Stevie, played by Danny Comden, doesn't bring much to the picnic with his unoriginal "Dude!" routine (unfortunate, given how much comedic potential is there), but Rhea Seehorn more than makes up for it by stealing every scene as Cheri, Alex's snarky sister. Strong sidekicks are crucial, since Polo and Sutcliffe are both a little bland and play pretty straightforward characters. Still, these two are solid enough actors that the romance between them is actually sort of touching, to the point where I suspect the city might be pumping extra estrogen into my drinking water.

Coupling (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.)

Meanwhile, the gas company could pump laughing gas into my vents and I still wouldn't find a single hearty guffaw in NBC's much-awaited "Coupling." This American version of the popular British show, which was itself a somewhat edgier imitation of "Friends," at least promised to transport us far, far away from living room/kitchen combos populated by unhinged families. Too bad we landed smack in the middle of a wasteland of juvenile sex jokes and ridiculous scenarios. While the British "Coupling" ranges from mildly amusing to irritatingly coy and foolish, NBC's version lingers mostly in the latter realm, offering up plots that are wildly unrealistic and goofily overacted. When Susan (Rena Sofer) shows up for a date with Steve (Jay Harrington), only to find her ex, Jeff (Christopher Moynihan), Steve's ex, Jane (Lindsay Price) and another of her exes, Patrick (Colin Ferguson) -- who's on a date with her best friend, Sally (Sonya Walger) -- what do you suppose happens next? Do you choose: A) Tears, recriminations, and bloodshed? Or B) Susan flashes her breast and then they all have dinner together? Suffice it to say you'll be wishing for bloodshed when you see the chirpy nonsense that transpires. The steady flow of sex jokes that felt overplayed after the second season of "Sex and the City" just adds insult to injury. When Jane mentions that she's bisexual in order to lure Steve back into bed, not only does the humor not transcend the level of a beer commercial, but the dazed "Oh my God, a threesome!" face on Steve isn't just unfunny, it's uncomfortably dumb. But then, how could NBC resist the obvious lure of an imitation of an imitation of "Friends"?

A Minute With Stan Hooper (Fox, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.)

New York news commentator Stan Hooper (Norm MacDonald) moves to a small town in Wisconsin with his wife, Molly (Penelope Ann Miller), to live a simpler life. In true unrealistic pilot fashion, he stumbles on a huge, furnished house he can rent for $500 a month, the only catch being that it comes with a pesky, wisecracking butler Gary (Brian Howe). He hires a local kid named Ryan (Eric Lively) to be his cameraman, the kid's dad (Fred Willard) throws him out, and the kid quickly moves into the house as well. The owners of the local diner, Pete (Daniel Roebuck) and Lou (Garret Dillahunt, whose weird country-boy routine is disconcertingly similar to Will Forte's hilarious skits from "Saturday Night Live") appear to be brothers. But guess what? They're married! Zany, huh? Sounds just like the small-town folks I know. If this quirky routine calls to mind "Newhart" or "Coach," that may be because creator Barry Kemp also created those two shows. Still, "A Minute With Stan Hooper" is the kind of wishy-washy, run-of-the-mill pilot that leaves you feeling wishy-washy as well. It's neither great nor painful, suggesting a show that will either evolve into a solid bet or peter out within a month or so. Give me a minute and I'll decide which.

Married to the Kellys (ABC, Fridays at 8:30 p.m.)

Nah, I'd rather rave about "Married to the Kellys," a tweaked-out small-town sitcom that dares to be truly bizarre. At first glance, this looks like "A Minute With Stan Hooper," sans Norm MacDonald. New York novelist Tom (Breckin Meyer) moves to Kansas with his wife Susan (Kiele Sanchez) and is forced to adjust to spending time with his in-laws. Snore. Then we meet the in-laws, a gaggle of Midwestern folks with demeanors and customs that straddle that familiar line between sugary sweet and utterly psychotic. Susan's mom, Sandy (Nancy Lenehan), is warm and friendly with a controlling undercurrent. She welcomes Tom to town by indoctrinating him into her "doghouse system" for publicly shaming family members who let the family down. Mary (Emily Rutherford) is an untapped archetype: a competitive know-it-all sister who takes "game night" a little too seriously. At dinner, the family sings a song about Jesus, then competes to see who can eat the most. The beauty of all this insanity is that it's familiar and feels like real life. Yes, the Kellys are truly disturbing, but you've met them all before. Unlike the vapid, big-spending sister on "Arrested Development," the washed-up soap star on "Hope & Faith," or the son sleeping with the middle-aged neighbor lady on "Happy Family," "Married to the Kellys" takes real life and exaggerates it just enough, but not too much. The situations are recognizable, so the laughs have more meaning and the characters and story lines have somewhere to go.

Obviously, creating a good sitcom, let alone a hit, is incredibly difficult. When you consider the numbers of comedy writers getting paid ungodly amounts of money to come up with this stuff, when you factor in the importance of good casting, skilled directing and network support, it's actually a miracle to create a show that doesn't stink. From that perspective, there are at least one or two miracles in the lineup this fall. Praise the Lord!

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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