Now, I normally only like to discuss shows that are intriguing, innovative and…you know…good. But I just can’t resist what is, on a grander scale, an opportunity for television critics as a whole to present our case to the decision-making heads of studios and networks as a teachable moment. Having sat through 3 episodes now of NBC’s ‘One Big Happy’, even with as much as I’d love for Elisha Cuthbert (and anyone else from the dearly departed ‘Happy Endings’) to have another chance to shine, this show makes my stomach turn. That is not how you make a sitcom in today’s media market.
The premise of the show is fine, Cuthbert plays Lizzy, a lesbian having a baby with straight best friend Luke (Nick Zano), who has also just married Prudence McCleavage (Kelly Brook). As complicated a relationship as that sounds, in the era of ‘Game of Thrones’ any television viewer can wrap their mashed potato brains around it fairly quickly.
The problem comes when the first episode takes forever (or what seems like forever, it’s 22 minutes, like every other episode of every other sitcom) to set up and deliver each individual comedic beat, slowly stacking the bricks, one by one, that will eventually tie together the plot that I just typed in 24 words.
C’mon people. Elisha Cuthbert is better than this, as anyone who was lucky enough to be in on ‘Happy Endings’ can attest to. The laugh track, in particular, is bothersome and annoying, as if the producers don’t think we’re smart enough to know when to laugh. Here’s a thought, say something funny enough for us to laugh at.
Cuthbert is at least as talented as Malin Akerman, front woman to the recently cancelled ‘Trophy Wife’, a show that should be hitting it’s 2nd season finale upswing right about now (but isn’t). Check out what Akerman can do when she’s not timing her dialogue for laugh track pauses, and when she has enough written to let her emotions naturally progress throughout the scene.
Again, I’m not saying Cuthbert can’t do the same, she’s a very talented actor, but for some reason on this show she isn’t being allowed to. Akerman started off on ‘Trophy Wife’ as a walking stereotype (you guessed it, the “trophy wife”), similar to Cuthbert’s “lesbian bestie” on ‘One Big Happy’. But Akerman, in addition to being surrounded by a stellar cast of both proven and diamond-in-the-rough actors, was allowed to play her “character” with the subtleties and contradictions of a real person. This led to a group whose entangled relationships were set up in the pilot only to grow in complexity as the rag tag, forced-together, awkward family began to become a real family.
Of course, families can come together even in the unnatural world of stereotypes and laugh tracks. ‘Big Bang Theory’ has limped along to an eighth season, with ninth and tenth seasons reportedly coming. While I’m a huge fan of multi-year deals for sitcoms, I’m of the mindset that they should be given to newly released sitcoms instead of dinosaurs that don’t work anymore.
‘Big Bang Theory’ was at one time my favorite show on television. The first two seasons were television gold, the fourth and fifth were a fascinating experiment on enlarging a sitcom cast while still struggling to hold onto its heart and rhythm.
There were many moments when those nerds found their way into my own heart, but (though it pains me to say) ‘Big Bang Theory’ has now become predictable, tired and dull.
There are, however, still times when Jim Parsons (Sheldon) and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (Penny) get to prove why they are the best comedic duo on television today (I’m talking to you: any other combination including ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Last Man on Earth’). That’s because, throughout all the changes to the cast size and Penny’s hair, those two have held onto the hearts of their characters and the heart of the show.
The laugh tracks here are secondary, after affects to the comedic beats hit by the actors; the same can be said for the “awwws”. Penny and Sheldon, stereotypes as different as can be at the start of the series, now have eight years of hitting emotional beats as well as comedic. They’ve found each other’s rhythyms, which is hard to survive long enough for. The only intriguing pair on ‘One Big Happy’ is on Kelly Brook.
I realize NBC is desperately searching for the long running juggernauts to take the place of ‘Friends’ and ‘The Office’, but, c’mon, they can’t possibly forget the fact that Whitney could easily be finishing its fourth season right now, with main couple Whitney and Alex going through a late season disaster in their relationship as Roxanne and Mark form a unholy alliance to attempt to navigate the thunderstorm that is their favorite couple.
Fox’s ‘New Girl’, currently the best sitcom on television (yes, ‘New Girl’ has stolen the top spot from ‘Modern Family’ in the last two years), is a series that has assembled a collective rhythm unlike any seen before. ‘Modern Family’ features a cast like a transformer, with all these moving parts that form different shapes, splintering off to perform functions as parts of the full message of the episode. It’s choreographed perfection. But the cast of ‘New Girl’ can just hang out.
At the start of episode 18 of the show’s fourth season, Jess and Cece (Zooey Deschanel and Hannah Simone) show up to the local bar to show the guys their new “blowouts”.
‘New Girl’ feels real not for lack of absurdity, of which there is abundance, but for the comfortableness the actors have found with each other. Jake Johnson (Nick) and Max Grenfield (Schmidt) lead the cast alongside Zooey “Disney eyes” Deschanel in a free-flowing, quip heavy style that keeps the viewer laughing (provided they have a sense of humor). Of course, in the real world conversations are never so timely and perfectly whimsical, and it’s not like what you’re watching on ‘New Girl’ is ever one smooth run at the scene by six improvising actors. But the ease with each the cast can move, breathe and joke together is akin to a true family.
If NBC is really looking to create a new family, great, more power to them. But half-assedly pumping out pilots, trying desperately to copy formulas from sitcoms before is not the way. ‘New Girl’, ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Big Bang Theory’ are where they are because they were fresh, innovative and lucky. But each of them needed time to truly find their way, and time is what we have to give new shows out of the gate if we’re going to find a new ‘Friends’. Just not ‘One Big Happy’.