‘Marry Me’ repeats the bad ‘Happy Endings’ history; now can it repeat the good?

(Note: For reasons that will seem obvious by the time you're done, this isn't exactly a review, and any grade I might apply would be a simple Incomplete. Will revisit down the road.)

Once upon a time, David Caspe created a sitcom that co-starred Casey Wilson, and that opened with a high-concept, marriage-related premise pilot featuring all the characters behaving in such a grating manner that I took an instant dislike to it. That show was “Happy Endings,” and it grew on me in time, eventually becoming one of TV's funniest sitcoms (if an often uneven one) before ABC gave up on it after a few seasons.

Caspe has done it again, with another sitcom that co-stars Casey Wilson, and that opens with a high-concept, marriage-related premise pilot featuring all the characters behaving in such a grating manner that I really didn't like “Marry Me” at all.

Now I just have to hope that the rest of the history repeats itself, and that “Marry Me” (which debuts tonight at 9 on NBC) will one day offer its own equivalents of Max teaching Penny how to be a hipster, or Alex eating ribs, or the Hip-Hop Santa dance-off.

Unfortunately, NBC didn't make additional episodes available, so all I have to go on is the “Marry Me” pilot, which opens with a mortifying opening set piece in which Wilson's Annie throws a massive tantrum when she thinks that her longtime boyfriend Jake (Ken Marino) isn't going to propose to her – even as he's kneeling behind her the entire time with a ring in his hand, looking increasingly dismayed as she insults him and all their friends and relatives who happen to be hiding elsewhere in the apartment.

It's the kind of memorable scene that I imagine helped the show cut through the development cycle clutter and get ordered to series, but it mainly made me hate Annie – and, to a lesser extent, everyone else in the apartment with he. The pilot continues with more botched engagement hijinks, all of it pitched very loudly, all of it resulting in Annie, and then Jake, and then others seeming less sympathetic, rather than more.

“Happy Endings” wasn't often interested in heart, but when it was, it usually involved Wilson's Penny, because Wilson was the most versatile member of that show's cast, and the one who could most easily shift from making a fool of herself to making you feel bad for Penny and her calamitous personal life. But the context in which “Marry Me” introduces Annie does her no favors, and though the pilot occasionally has jokes that evoke Wilson and Caspe's previous one – when Annie's friend Dennah (Sarah Wright) wonders if their other friends share Annie's dislike of the rompers she wears, Gil (John Gemberling) says, “You look like a hypersexualized toddler” – it's just background noise to the larger issue of when Annie and Jake will both get their act together at the same time and finally get engaged. Every now and then (particularly in flashbacks to how they first met), Wilson and Marino are allowed to just be charming together, but then the show gets back to the marriage plot, and all momentum is lost.

At press tour, Caspe suggested the show was going to very quickly move beyond that idea and tell more stories about a group of weird friends – plus Tim Meadows, who plays one of Wilson's two dads – hanging out together, and simply let funny actors be funny. That's more or less what he did with “Happy Endings.” Based on that track record and the fact that I like Wilson and Marino so much as comic actors, I have reason to assume things will get better from here. But boy, do I wish I had even one additional episode to look at.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com