When “Modern Family” and “Glee” became the breakout comedy hits of last season, there were articles written about what the ripple effect would be for comedies in development.
Would we get more genre-bending hour-long hybrids?
Would we get more single-camera family comedies?
And no network’s comedy progress was more closely watched than ABC, which overcame years of development struggles or promotional difficulties to launch one unqualified comedy hit (“Modern Family”) and two qualified comedy successes (“Cougar Town” and “The Middle”).
So there ABC was with three fresh single-camera comedies on Wednesday, seemingly establishing a new network brand.
What did ABC come up with to fill its only empty half-hour?
That would be “Better with You,” a middling old-fashioned multi-camera comedy that feels like the sort of disposable sitcom NBC used to wedge into its Must See TV Thursday lineup with minimal success five or 10 years ago.
[Full review of “Better with You” after the break…]
For all of its success, ABC had a hard time last season in that 8:30 half-hour. After “Hank” was an epic failure and was swiftly dispatched to that true netherworld of unbearable comedies, ABC looked at where things stood, saw those three comedies heading for renewal and decided that it had been a good year. And for the rest of the season, the 8:30 half-hour was never really filled again. Even pleas from fans suggesting that a “Better Off Ted” or “Scrubs” might respond to a little Wednesday TLC fell on deaf ears.
ABC couldn’t use repeats of “The Middle” at 8:30 forever, but “Better with You” doesn’t feel like anything resembling a permanent solution. It feels like the innocuous show ABC is programming for a couple months before deciding whether “Mr. Sunshine” or “Happy Endings” is more suited to take over, since both of those “midseason” entries are single-camera comedies much more on-brand with ABC’s Wednesday.
In contrast, “Better with You” would be more on-brand for, say, CBS Monday. You could put it at 8:30 after “How I Met Your Mother” or maybe 9:30 after “Two and a Half Men” and viewers would know exactly what to expect.
“Better with You” is about the ways couples communicate at different stages in a relationships. Written by Shana Goldberg-Meehan, the “Better with You” pilot has its theme in place, but it isn’t nearly so settled with its storytelling and punchline-delivering confidence.
On the older end of the spectrum, we have Vicky (Debra Jo Rupp) and Joel (Kurt Fuller), married for 35 years and content to let familiarity and long-standing intimacy rule out over any sort of hot-blooded passion.
Their eldest daughter Maddie (Jennifer Finnigan) is in a nine-year relationship with Ben (Josh Cooke). They’re both invested in their careers and although they’re in love, they haven’t gotten married and it’s “a valid life choice.”
And then there’s youngest daughter Mia (JoAnna Garcia), who’s flighty, impetuous and suddenly engaged to marry Casey (Jake Lacy), a guy she’s known for less than two months.
The plot of the pilot mostly revolves around Mia and Casey telling everybody about their engagement and the different reactions come through the prisms of the other relationships.
It’s a low-key premise, but not a bad one. And when you have comic actors this solid on-board, you can almost make believe that this flimsiness has substance.
Fuller and Rupp give the show instant credibility, even if Rupp is just rehashing her “That ’70s Show” performance turned down several ticks. And Cooke and Finnegan only enhance that vibe of watching a short-lived mid-00s NBC comedy (“Committed,” in specific, but several others as well). If Fuller and Rupp are both wily old veterans, adept at finding ways to make the most of characters some shows would find demographically undesirable, Finnegan and Cooke are both solid journeyman. We learned a while ago that neither is going to make your show a smash, but they land their punchlines well enough.
The show’s ace in the hole is obviously Garcia, who proved with The CW’s “Privileged” that she can carry an hour-long dramedy with ease, but somehow hasn’t found a subsequent project to take her to that next level of stardom. I don’t quite get why, given what I assume were probably a dozen pilot possibilities, she selected this unassuming ensemble, but I’m guessing her participation was integral to its making ABC’s schedule. For want of a better description, Garcia just sortta sparkles. She’s got an infectious energy and you kind of want to laugh with her even though her character doesn’t quite materialize and nothing she says is really funny. In fact, some things she’s saying are actively unfunny, like the running gag involving characters mocking Mia for saying Spanish words with a thick accent.
The wild card, and the cast’s only unknown, is Lacy. In my notes, I described him as a beefier Matthew Lillard and like the “Scream” veteran, he gives somewhat cooky line-readings, swinging between annoying and goofy-funny.
What fails everybody is that the pilot is short on actual jokes. It’s almost like somebody decided to do a single-camera joke ratio with a multi-camera pace and aesthetic. That will make sense to the five of you who pay close attention to your TV comedies. Even the studio audience/Laugh Track was subdued in the screener I watched.
“Better with You” is so genial and I have enough warmth for enough of the cast that I wasn’t offended that it felt like the punchlines had been trimmed right out of script. Like when Finnegan’s character, supposedly in her 30s, goes off on a rant about kids today with their texting, nobody involved really expected laughs from that, right? It’s just good-natured grumpiness? And the stuff about how Fuller’s character is a grammar snob? Just a little character detail, but not one that was supposed to generate laughs, right?
I’m hesitant to point it out, but “Better with You” is one of three comedy pilots premiering this week directed by James Burrows, basically the father of the modern sitcom form, directing-wise. And “Better with You,” like CBS’ “Mike & Molly” and “Feces My Dad Says,” has lapses in tone and pacing which are either an example of poor directing or directing that could have covered for scripting failures, but instead accentuated them. Or maybe I’m just being a young whippersnapper all discombobulated by old-fashioned storytelling. [But I’m not.]
On NBC in the late ’90s or even on CBS two or three years ago, “Better with You” would have been a seamless fit and it might have found a tolerant audience amidst funnier shows. On ABC now, it’s a placeholder. I don’t think anybody’s going to hate “Better with You,” or even dislike it, but I don’t see it drawing devotees either.
“Better with You” premieres on Wednesday, Sept. 22 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.