The hot trend in TV dramas this fall is comic book adaptations, as every broadcast network but CBS will have at least one show based on a Marvel or DC title (with CBS likely following next year with its “Supergirl” pilot). If there's a hot trend in the new sitcoms (of which there aren't a ton), it's with a genre that's often been used to counterprogram comic book movies: the romantic comedy.
Maybe the networks are trying to chase the long success of “How I Met Your Mother” – even though that show's finale angered many of its fans, while CBS didn't even order “How I Met Your Dad” to series – or maybe it's just the idea that was “in the air” this season, like in years past when we got multiple shows about men who time travel back into their teenage selves, or slackers who work at big box stores and get super powers, or hospital dramas set in Chicago. Whatever the reason, we've got two of them this week: ABC's “Manhattan Love Story” (tonight at 8:30) and NBC's “A to Z” (Thursday at 9:30). Neither is especially good – the “Manhattan Love Story” pilot, in fact, is one of the three worst pilots on any network this fall(*), though the second episode is less heinous – and each illustrates different challenges of telling serialized romantic stories in sitcom form.
(*) Another is “The Mysteries of Laura.” The third will air later this week on CBS, and feature one of the Derbel McDilletts.
“Manhattan Love Story” was at one point titled “My Thoughts Exactly,” inspired by the gimmick that allows us to hear the inner thoughts of hero Peter (Jake McDornan) and heroine Dana (Analeigh Tipton). And what incredible insight to do we learn about either the difference between the sexes in general or between these two particular representatives of them? Mainly that men are obsessed with breasts, and women with purses. I am not exaggerating. That is literally what the first scene of the show is about.
Our first impressions of these two are not meant as a fake-out. No, Peter and Dana are essentially parodies of how Aaron Sorkin writes men and women, with Peter as a smug bro's bro and Dana as a flighty, neurotic mess who has no idea how to use modern technology. (The pilot spends a lot of time on her inability to properly update her Facebook profile.) Most of this fall's new sitcoms – including “A to Z” – saddle the hero with a bearded best friend to say all the crude and sexist things the writers are afraid to put in the mouth of their leading man; though Peter's obnoxious brother does, indeed, have a beard, he's unnecessary, because Peter's inner monologue offers enough crassness for everyone.
The second episode tries to seriously smooth out Peter's most abrasive qualities, but even so he spends his first scene opposite Dana thinking about how she isn't wearing a bra.
There's a moment toward the end of the episode – whose main story involves Dana accepting that Peter is still dating other women at this point in her relationship, while she experiments with Tinder(**) – where the two of them are just talking to each other like adults, and they're perfectly charming and cute together. For most of the first two episodes, Tipton (an “America's Next Top Model” alum who demonstrated an off-kilter comic sensibility as the babysitter in “Crazy Stupid Love”) seems like a prisoner of the crummy show around her, while “Greek” alum McDorman has a character no actor could make likable. But for a few minutes, it's a non-terrible show – albeit one that has both main characters demonstrating so much emotional maturity that I can't imagine these writers making an ongoing sitcom about them behaving that way.
(**) After “New Girl” and this, get ready for every sitcom you watch to do a Tinder story this year, folks.
The best thing “A to Z” has going for it are leads Ben Feldman (Ginsberg from “Mad Men”) and Cristin Milioti (the wonderful, doomed Mother from “How I Met Your Mother”) as Andrew and Zelda. They're bright and appealing, whether together or separately, but they can only do so much to ground the very lightweight and gimmicky show “A to Z” aspires to be.
As narrator Katey Sagal explains, Andrew and Zelda “will date for 8 months, 3 weeks, 5 days and 1 hour. This television program is the comprehensive account of their relationship, from A to Z.” This seems not only a limiting premise – though I imagine that, in success, they will get engaged after 8 months, 3 weeks, 5 days and 1 hour, or else break up and then get back together 2 months, 1 week, 2 days and 4 hours after that – but the structure, narration and very twee tone are so evocative of “500 Days of Summer” that I hope those filmmakers are getting some kind of royalty out of this show.
The narration adds little, save for gender characterizations only slightly more evolved than what “Manhattan Love Story” has to offer. Andrew is introduced “a guy's guy. He likes sports and Liam Neeson movies.” Zelda is “a girl's girl. She likes pedicures and themed cocktail parties.” They have their other sides as well, but those turn out to be a rehash of the original Ted/Robin dynamic from “HIMYM,” with Andrew as the hopeless romantic and Zelda as the guarded cynic with the warped upbringing. They're surrounded by broader types, including the obligatory bearded doofus for him and the obligatory friend who gives terrible romantic advice for her.
That said, they do have chemistry together, which is often half the battle. And we know from that dire final season of “HIMYM” just how much Milioti can elevate even the worst material in this genre, and this seems more cliche-ridden than anything. Since NBC only sent a pilot, I'm willing to wait a little longer before dismissing the chance to watch Ginsberg and Tracy McConnell be schmoopie with each other. Definitely not love at first sight, but also not loathe like “Manhattan Love Story.”
GRADES: “Manhattan Love Story” D+ / “A to Z” B-
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org