Review: ‘One Big Happy’ illustrates sad state of NBC comedy brand

With “Parks and Recreation” ascended to heaven, “Community” descended to Yahoo and “Marry Me” and “About a Boy” preparing to evaporate into the ether, you might say that NBC's comedy brand was in jeopardy.

That, however, would make the completely false assumption that NBC has a comedy brand. As the network heads into the heart of the Spring 2015 development season, NBC has a couple half-hour blocks of laugh-intended programming, which does not a “comedy brand” make. 

The network's confusion at its place-filling strategy is evident in the new Tuesday block of “Undateable” and “One Big Happy,” which premieres on Tuesday (March 17) with the not insignificant boost of “The Voice,” which NBC presumably hopes will prevent the ignominy of a network having to start 100 percent from scratch, comedy-wise, at the May upfronts. On the surface, “Undateable” and “One Big Happy” feel similar, at least if your concept of similar is “All multi-cam comedies are identical and therefore compatible,” which seems to be NBC's theory. 

The reality is that “Undateable” and “One Big Happy” area almost polar opposites, at least outside of their format, and while neither is likely to succeed on a wide-scale level, they're definitely unlikely to succeed together.

“Undateable” is an intriguingly concept-less wonder. As often seems to happen with Bill Lawrence shows, the title is a feint, meant to confuse you and keep you from watching a show you might otherwise somewhat enjoy. Like “Cheers,” “Undateable” is about a bunch of guys who hang around a bar, but even “Cheers” had specific arcs. For Lawrence and “Undateable” creator Adam Sztykiel, the goal mostly seems to be “Get far out of the way and let funny people go to town.” It's like Chris D'Elia, Brent Morin, Rick Glassman, Ron Funches and company might become less amusing if you imposed a structure on them, so when “Undateable” shines, it's because an episode is a 22-minute incubator for rapport, both unforced and otherwise. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But if you're watching “Undateable,” it's because you think these guys are a hoot and not because you're invested in the episodic adventures.

“One Big Happy” isn't that.

The new series stars Elisha Cuthbert, Nick Zano and Kelly Brook and it was created by Liz Feldman, not that you'd have any clue from NBC's promotion. Feldman is completely invisible in NBC marketing and if any commercials have mentioned the names of a single actor, I've missed them. “One Big Happy” is being marketed around executive producer Ellen DeGeneres' name, in the same way that “Guys with Kids” was marketed only around Jimmy Fallon's brand. “Guys with Kids” failed and “One Big Happy” is going to fail — creatively and in ratings — but this has nothing to do with distorted and confusing promotion.

While “Undateable” is a show of funny people who don't need scaffolding material upon which to hang their funny, “One Big Happy” is something different. As “Happy Endings” fans can tell you, Elisha Cuthbert is an inspired comedienne, but she's not a self-generating joke machine. This isn't an insult of Elisha Cuthbert in even the smallest way. If you play to her strengths, Cuthbert will produce laughs and she'll elevate already good material. She's got good timing, boundless enthusiasm and very little ego, which are great building blocks. But while you can say to Chris D'Elia “Here's something unfunny, make it funny,” you can't say that to Elisha Cuthbert. [That doesn't mean that D'Elia will always succeed in making the unfunny thing funny, but good gracious he'll try.] I'm not as convinced on Nick Zano and Kelly Brook's comedic upside as I am of Cuthbert's, but neither has really had a vehicle of “Happy Endings”-level comedic quality. But I've seen enough to know that probably even moreso than Cuthbert, they're in the “People who need funny material to be funny” camp.

In semantic terms, “Undateable” is almost an anti-sitcom. There is no “sit[uation]” worth mentioning.

And “One Big Happy” is a three-hour premise pilot.

Yes, NBC has only ordered six episodes of “One Big Happy” and I've seen all six episodes and you can tune into the first episode or the fifth episode and basically all you're going to get is a repetition of the core premise. The sixth episode seems to complicate the premise enough that Season 2 would likely be a six-episode repetition of that new core premise, except that Season 2 probably will never exist and therefore is moot. At no point in six episodes does “One Big Happy” ever just settle into becoming a comedy, so if you watch the pilot and go, “Well, this isn't funny, but I guess I might stick around to see what the series is,” I strongly recommend you not do that.

The premise and plot of every “One Big Happy” episode is this: Lizzy (Cuthbert) and Luke (Zano) are lifelong besties. She's a detail-oriented lesbian. He's an amiably lunkheaded bowling alley owner. Having struggled to find love outside of their platonic love for each other, they decide to have a baby and just as she finally gets pregnant, Luke falls in love with curvaceous British free spirit Prudence (Brook) and… get ready to grab your hat in shock… marries her. Well that's sure to complicate matters!

That's the pilot. 

And then that's each subsequent episode.

Basically every punchline involving Cuthbert's character revolves around her being a lesbian and having lesbian footwear and clothes and interests. If there's any additional room for Cuthbert-generated punchlines, they involve her OCD or neatness. A perfect punchline for Lizzy requires her to marvel at and be horrified by attractive naked female anatomy in her otherwise ostensibly sterile abode. I guess there are some punchlines in which she has to explain the entire premise of the show to doctors, nurses, people at drug stores and the audience, but sometimes Zano's character does that as well. Around the fourth or fifth episode, you sense that somebody checked out a “Happy Endings” episode and they realized that Elisha Cuthbert funny-dancing is just a glorious source of humor, but it takes way, way, way too long.

Kelly Brook's body is the source of a goodly percentage of her fame Across the Pond and it's a source of a more-than-good percentage of the jokes in “One Big Happy.” She gets pixelatedly naked in the first episode and from there she's constantly making jokes about things like being arrested in Morocco for “smuggling melons” and then pausing for the audience to gradually come to the shocking realization that her misdeed doubles as a euphemism for booby-melons. Kudos for to the audience for successfully going on this journey with Brook.

The writers don't have a clue who Zano's character is, so I can't really tell you what his standard joke is. He's not presented as a total half-wit, but he's definitely slow on the uptake. In the first episode, it's mentioned that he's writing a sci-fi book, but that's not mentioned again. Sometimes his bowling alley and co-star Brandy Mychal Smith are forgotten for whole episodes at a time. He's the sitcom girlfriend, asked mostly just to be pretty. He's got some acceptable physical comedy instincts, but the writers don't have the desire to vary that physical comedy, so this is a six-episode series in which a gag about Luke falling over a bar is repeated intentionally between the first and sixth episodes, because by the finale, I was definitely getting nostalgic for the pilot. [This is oddly not untrue. “One Big Happy” gets worse and less funny as it goes alone and Feldman's comedic voice gets diluted and Xeroxed over six episodes. And the pilot isn't good either.]

I'm not going to be one of those people who complains about the laugh-track in a multi-cam comedy. 99.99 percent of current multi-cam comedies and nearly the same percentage of show runners of previous multi-cam comedies would deny the use of a laugh-track, so clearly such a thing has never been done and nobody ever sweetens sitcom laughter and blah blah blah. So “Undateable” and “One Big Happy” were surely filmed in front of live audiences and this is how people reacted.

So with “Undateable,” they're reacting to an energy. I know that “Undateable” does long taping processes in which jokes are revised and escalated constantly through improvisation. So if the audience is maybe a little louder than the punchlines merit at times, you can just assume that viewers have been part of a generally raucous taping and mirth is in the air. 

With “One Big Happy,” I assume the process is different and the laughter seems perfunctory and often confusing. I get that they love the word “vagina.” Hilarious, right? I get that they love that sometimes British people have different words for things and that sometimes those words for things sound dirty inadvertently. And they love that Elisha Cuthbert's character is a lesbian, because this means she finds WOMEN to be attractive. And yes, it feels like most of the laughter in the six “One Big Happy” episodes I've seen is default or perfunctory. But sometimes it's also bizarre. In one late episode, Cuthbert's character tosses a lollypop into the air and catches it in her mouth. And the audience cheers. I can only assume that she did this 50 or 60 times and failed and the applause corresponded to a pity celebration? Or else after you've watched enough floundering punchlines and given enough mercy laughs, you lower your standards a great deal.

As long as “About a Boy” remains in limbo — I can pretend there are reasons NBC would want to remain in business with Jason Katims, even if it meant renewing a show this low-rated — “Undateable” is in the temporary position of being the network's longest-running comedy, which is a little absurd. “Undateable” is a decent enough B/B- comedy with B+ upside, but it isn't anywhere near settled and confident enough itself to be a network's comedic eminence grise or standard-bearer. You'd want this to be the comedy with potential that you put behind the established and clicking-on-all-cylinders sitcom in the hopes that audiences will enjoy its high points and be patient through its occasional stumbles. Instead, “Undateable” is getting the “Voice” lead-in and setting up “One Big Happy,” a series that's almost all stumbles and only offers potential if your willingness to support Elisha Cuthbert is boundless after “Happy Endings.” “Undateable” should be a valuable utility player to support your comedy brand, not your comedy brand. And “One Big Happy” should have been a pilot that was politely passed over.

“Undateable” and “One Big Happy” are NBC's 9 p.m. comedy block starting on Tuesday, March 17.