In one of the few laugh-out-loud lines in TV Land's new sitcom "The Exes" (tonight at 10:30), we meet Eden, the pint-sized, sexpot assistant to divorce lawyer Holly. Eden is played by Kelly Stables, whom the Internet Movie Database very generously lists at 5' tall, and one of Holly's clients suggests that Eden "looks like someone threw a hot chick in the dryer."
"The Exes," like most of TV Land's inventory of deliberately retro comedies (starting with "Hot in Cleveland"), feels very much like someone threw a good sitcom in the dryer. It looks and sounds like the kind of genuine oldiest-but-goodies that rerun on TV Land and Nick at Nite – and has a cast filled with actors who appeared on those kinds of shows – but everything is smaller, including the laughter.
Holly (Kristen Johnston
from "3rd Rock from the Sun"), it turns out, has a fondness for taking in strays, so she's rented out the apartment across the hall to two recent clients: playboy Phil (Donald Faison
from "Scrubs") and couch potato Haskell (Wayne Knight
from "Seinfeld" and "3rd Rock"). The two are getting along well, mainly by staying out of each other's way, until Holly gives them a new roommate in Stuart (David Alan Basche
from USA's "The Starter Wife"), a touchie-feely oversharer whose first conversation with the guys involves setting up a chore schedule, and who likes to interrupt Phil's attempt to read the newspaper(*) at breakfast to ask, "Whatcha thinkin'?" (Phil: "I'm thinking I paid someone half my money to never hear that question again.")
(*) That's how retro the show is: a character Donald Faison's age reads the morning paper every day.
It is, essentially, "The Odd Couple,"(**) with Stuart as Felix, Phil as Oscar, and Haskell (who doesn't feature into a major plot in any of the three episodes I've seen) just there because someone must have worried it wouldn't look right to have two men of a certain age as roommates in 2011. (That, or TV Land execs were over the moon about his recurring role on "Hot in Cleveland.")
(**) On our podcast this week, Fienberg more interestingly posited that it's also "New Girl," only with David Alan Basche filling in for Zooey Deschanel. (The climax of the pilot even has Phil implausibly turning down a shot with a beautiful woman to rescue Stuart, whom he's just met, from certain humiliation.) Some "New Girl" detractors have argued that the only people who like the show do so because they're attracted to Zooey D, and while I disagree (and not just because I know a number of straight women and gay men who think it's funny), I couldn't help noticing that a similar set-up revolving around a character who's a middle-aged guy was considerably less enjoyable. Hmm...
"The Exes" isn't a particularly artful comedy, nor is it trying to be one. It just wants to remind TV Land's target demo of the kinds of shows they grew up watching, filled with familiar actors and familiar kinds of jokes. In the case of "Hot in Cleveland," the cast is gifted enough, and the writing just good enough, that it at least works as a kind of high-end margarine to the butter that is the TV Land rerun lineup. "The Exes" isn't quite on that level, but it's also not actively annoying in the way that previous "Cleveland" partners "Retired at 35" and "Happily Divorced" are. It's mediocre, but it's at least pleasantly mediocre. Everyone knows how to deliver a joke, the writers understand the inherent comedy that comes from putting the very tall Johnston opposite the very small Stables (though they come very close to overdoing the joke by having Holly date a jockey in the second episode), and as a young woman lacking both inhibitions and a filter, Stables makes a comic impression from more than her size.
At a press tour party back in the summer, Johnston was working the room, asking critics to watch later episodes, which she felt better reflected what the show could be. And in addition to the first two installments, TV Land also sent critics a copy of the sixth episode, guest-starring Paula Marshall (in a role that will feel familiar if you know her resume well). And it is, indeed, a notable improvement on earlier installments. It doesn't take it up to the level of the good NBC sitcoms from the '80s and '90s, but it's at least as good as (and in some cases significantly better than) the ones that tended to air at 8:30 and 9:30 after the ones we all remember well.
And given TV Land's ambitions, that's mission accomplished right there.