Success and NBC have been strangers for so long that you can’t blame the Peacock for reacting to even the slightest bit of popularity like a lonely singleton overdoing it on their first date in years. When season two of “The Sing-Off” proved more popular than the first - and more popular than most of what NBC airs these days - the network raced to figure out a way to capitalize on that popularity.
There aren’t additional episodes they can air, but there’s at least tonight’s finale to use as a lead-in to something else, and so late last week NBC decided to expand the finale from two hours to two and a half and follow it with a sneak preview of the new sitcom “Perfect Couples,” which wasn’t scheduled to debut until Jan. 20. But the decision was made with such haste that the network had to quickly double back and squeeze “Sing-Off” back to 2 hours (apparently, there’s only so much you can pad even a reality show finale), put “Perfect Couples” at 10 and an “Office” repeat at 10:30. And things moved so quickly that the “Perfect Couples” airing tonight isn’t either of the ones that NBC sent out for review last week.
So why the haste? Again, it’s been a long time since NBC has been able to give a good lead-in to anything they’re launching, and “Perfect Couples” is going to be part of a crowded six-piece comedy Thursday schedule in a few weeks where NBC will also have to spend time and money promoting the return of “Parks and Recreation” (albeit in the only good timeslot on that night, after “The Office”) and the move of “30 Rock” and “Outsourced” to the 10 o’clock hour. Might as well try one of those pieces here, and as the only brand-new show of the bunch, “Perfect Couples” needs the most help with promotion.
Creatively, it could also use some help, though not as much as I had feared when I saw a clip reel at NBC’s fall schedule announcement last spring. There are some likable actors here, and funny moments here and there, but the two episodes I’ve seen (which, again, don’t include tonight’s) suggest a show not in the league of the established comedies NBC has on that night.
There are three not-so-perfect couples here: Dave (Kyle Bornheimer from “Worst Week") and Julia (Christine Woods from "Flash Forward") are the relatable (read: slightly boring) couple at the center, dealing with friends on two extremes. Vance (David Walton) and Amy (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) are immature, neurotic and constantly fighting as a prelude to make-up sex. Rex (Hayes MacArthur) and Leigh (the ubiquitous Olivia Munn) seem closest on the surface to embodying the show’s title, but beneath their perfect wardrobes, perky attitudes and lingo cribbed from dozens of relationship advice books, they’re even more dysfunctional than the other two pairs.
The three men/three women set-up seems a familiar one for an NBC Thursday, and not surprising given that co-creator Scott Silveri was a longtime writer on “Friends.” Of course, he was also one of the co-creators of “Joey,” where he worked with the other “Perfect Couples” creator, Jon Pollack. One of the lessons those two seem to have learned from that show (and from Pollack’s more recent work on “30 Rock”) is the value of sharing the wealth. Joey Tribbiani worked well as one piece of an ensemble, much less so as the center of his own series, and while none of the “Perfect Couples” characters - either on their own or with their respective partners - might be enough to carry a show, several of them are perfectly fine in smaller doses.
In particular, Ellis - best known as the nameless Waitress on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” - is a lot of fun as the twitchy, easily-flustered Amy. (When she discovers that Vance has tricked her into attending another Game Night at Dave’s house, she wails, "I can't pretend to know who Lou Diamond Phillips is again!") One episode features a subplot about Rex setting up a man cave that none of the other men want to hang out in, but which Amy takes a shine to, and as the two bond over chewing tobacco, samurai swords and ample quantities of booze, there’s a sense of infectious fun that suggests a show that could eventually fit in comfortably with this lineup.
Still, there’s work to be done. Munn doesn’t get to go much deeper than Type A caricature, and Walton’s character is so much stranger than everyone else that he often feels like he belongs on a different show - albeit a show that’s occasionally funnier than the one the rest are in. (When Vance checks into a hotel after a fight with Amy, he tearfully tells Dave, “They made me sign up for a rewards program!”) And while Bornheimer is appealing and goofy, the writers don’t seem to know what to do with Woods, who was one of the few interesting pieces of “Flash Forward.” In general, there are about three or four different tones and levels of realism fighting each other at once for supremacy, and Silveri and Pollack would do well to pick one and go with that.
“Parks and Rec,” “30 Rock” and “Community” set a very high comedy standard - and “The Office” still does from time to time, like the recent Christmas episode - that can be very unflattering to other comedies that air adjacent to them. Maybe starting out after “The Sing-Off,” even in such a rush and with little promotion, is the best thing that could happen to “Perfect Couples” - not just because it’ll be a bigger lead-in than “Community” can provide in a month, but because we won’t be comparing it to another, much better comedy the first time out.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org