It happens nearly every TV season: two (or more) new shows, allegedly developed completely independent of each other, turn out to be uncannily similar. Their respective creators will, at best, admit to being vaguely aware of the other show. Their respective network executives will claim that there was just “something in the air” that made this the year for two shows about adult men who get to re-live their high school days (“That Was Then…” and “Do-Over”), or about slackers at big box stores who get super powers (“Chuck” and “Reaper”), or backstage-at-“SNL” (“30 Rock” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”).
This year’s surprisingly popular theme: three couples at different stages of a relationship, which started in the fall with ABC’s “Better With You,” continued into winter with NBC’s “Perfect Couples” and tonight at 9:30 adding FOX’s “Traffic Light.”
Why this idea, repeated so many times, this season? Well, the best theory I’ve heard is that they’re all the TV business’s attempt to copy the success of “Modern Family” without having to, you know, actually make family comedies about parents and kids and whatnot. So rather than rip off the more obvious aspects of that show, these newbies instead have focused in on the idea of three intersecting sets who can offer different perspectives on the same topic.
As accidental dopplegangers go, this seems less silly than the high school do-over shows, but mostly what the newcomers illustrate is just how hard it is to execute comedy at a high level, whether you’re focusing on one family unit or several – and how hard it is to get viewers to care equally about three different groups.
Whatever issues I’ve had with “Modern Family” this season, I always find something to enjoy in each of the different family groupings, whether it’s Luke’s obliviousness in the Dunphy household, or Cam getting over-excited, or Gloria manipulating her two men. “Better With You” I dropped out on quickly in part because a traditional comedy has to be really funny to overcome my dislike of the laughtrack, in part because I really hated the dumb guy who got engaged to JoAnna Garcia’s character. With “Perfect Couples,” I enjoy some of the characters (mainly Mary Elizabeth Eliis’s) but find others (mainly Olivia Munn’s) a chore.
“Traffic Light” winds up with a negative hat trick, in which I found myself not caring about any of its three male leads, though I did like one of their female co-stars and several of the guests who popped up in the episodes I’ve seen.
The three intersecting sets in this show involve three longtime pals whose current romantic status represents the three parts of the titular traffic light: Mike (David Denman) is married and has a baby, so he’s the stopped red light; Adam (Nelson Franklin) is proceeding with caution after finally moving in with his girlfriend, and Ethan (Kris Marshall) drives right on ahead as a carefree single guy with no interest in settling down.
I don’t actually mind Denman (who was Pam’s lunk of a fiance Roy on “The Office”) or Franklin (who has also done time on “The Office” as the Sabre IT guy), but their characters seem fuzzily-defined beyond overgrown (as in, really, really tall, especially for showbiz) man-child, and are so blank and bland as characters that the only laughs to come from either of their sections of the show tend to involve Liza Lapira as Mike’s tough-but-fair wife Lisa.
Still, I prefer either of those guys to Marshall as aging horndog Ethan. An actor like Neil Patrick Harris on “How I Met Your Mother” can make that kind of character really likable, but it’s not nearly as easy as Harris makes it look, and Marshall can’t transcend Ethan’s innate d-bag qualities.
“Traffic Light” does make pretty good use of its guest stars, whether Collette Wolfe (Kirsten from “Cougar Town”) as a female colleague whom Mike fears is crushing on him or Janina Gavankar (Shiva from “The League”) as an ex of Ethan’s whom Lisa befriends in violation of the guys’ “burn notice” policy of disavowing each other’s exes.
Mostly, though, the show is just the three guys bantering with each other on speaker phone while driving around LA, and there’s not enough chemistry between them, or color individually, for me to care any more about “Traffic Light” than about “Perfect Couples” or “Better With You.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org