When a sitcom has fairly sane, normal characters at its center and one or more larger-than-life characters on the margins, fans and/or critics often suggest that the show would be better off refocusing on the funny sidekicks than the boring straight men. I lost count of the number of “Will & Grace” reviews I read (and possibly also wrote) insisting the series should be called “Jack & Karen,” for instance, and most “How I Met Your Mother” fandom has been far more invested in narcissistic player Barney than hopeless romantic Ted.
Focusing a romantic comedy on the sidekicks doesn’t automatically make your show brilliant, though, if CBS’ new “Mad Love” (which debuts tonight at 8:30, after “HIMYM”) is anything to go by.
On the surface, it’s a show about the love-at-first-sight romance between Ben (Jason Biggs) and Kate (Sarah Chalke), who meet cute atop the Empire State Building and are finishing each other’s sentences by the end of the first date.
That’s not really what it’s about, though, as is made clear by the fact that the show is narrated by Ben’s obnoxious best friend Larry, played by Tyler Labine in a role that’s not a stretch from his days filling the same slot on “Reaper.”
Larry begins the series by asking, “Do you believe in fairy tales? Yeah, me neither. Well, this one is going to be a little different because I’m the one telling it.” And later, he explains to Kate’s own sidekick Connie (Judy Greer), “I learned a pretty long time ago that I am not the hero of the story. And if I want to be in the story, I have two options: I can try to help the hero, or I can try to destroy him.”
But it becomes clear quickly that even if Larry’s not the hero of a story – he’s too selfish and sweaty and juvenile for that – he just might be its protagonist. He not only narrates the story, but by the end of the pilot his part of the story seems a whole lot more interesting than Ben’s. Where Ben and Kate are made for each other and just have some timing issues to be worked out, Larry and Connie fall into instant loathing, complain loudly about having to interact because of their friends and yet are also pretty clearly going to end up together eventually. (They also, at one point in the pilot, finish each other’s sentence, but are too busy bickering to notice.)
That’s a cliche, too, but at least it gives “Mad Love” a story to tell, and jokes to hang on it, whereas by the end of the pilot Ben and Kate are practically ready for their wedding. And because Biggs and Chalke aren’t asked to do much more than stare longingly into each other’s eyes, it’s up to Labine and Greer to carry anything resembling humor.
And that could be a good comedy at some point. I liked Labine a lot on “Reaper” and I loved Greer on “Arrested Development” and as one of the voices on “Archer.” I’ve even enjoyed Biggs and Chalke in previous roles (in “American Pie” and on “Scrubs,” respectively) that gave them more to do. It’s a likable cast and the show seems a potentially good companion to “HIMYM” (these characters even hang out in a bar that looks a bit like the “HIMYM” bar shifted 90 degrees), but there’s one problem:
It’s not especially funny. Not yet, anyway.
Last week, I gave a mixed review to ABC’s “Mr. Sunshine,” which also had a bunch of people I’d liked in other things, but which didn’t seem to be quite working in its pilot episode. But that show at least made me laugh out loud 3 or 4 times. I sat through the “Mad Love” pilot – which, like “HIMYM,” has the look and laughtrack of a traditional sitcom but is shot over several days without an audience – and smiled a few times (mostly at Greer’s job as a nanny for a trophy wife who’s scared of her own kids), but that was about it.
On the other hand, it was pleasant enough, and the actors all had enough chemistry, that I didn’t find myself rolling my eyes when the laughtrack came up, as I often do at bad traditional sitcoms. (It helps that the sound engineer shows restraint both in the duration and volume of the laughs.)
There’s a potentially good comedy here. It’s just not there yet, and it feels like Labine and Greer have to try too hard to compensate for Biggs and Chalke not giving (or being asked to give) anything on the comedy end of things.
The thing about those other comedies with allegedly boring main characters is this: when those shows were at their best, the straight men and women were also funny, even if the sidekicks tended to get the biggest laughs. And when the main characters don’t work comedically (see Ted for most of last season on “HIMYM”), then nothing works.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org