Bill Lawrence is among the smartest producers in TV comedy today, but even smart people make mistakes — sometimes, the same mistakes.
Five years ago, Lawrence (who had previously created "Spin City" and "Scrubs") gave us "Cougar Town," a sitcom with an awful title and an awful premise to match. No one much wanted to watch Courteney Cox work her way through a series of interchangeable hot guys in their 20s, and by the middle of the first season, Lawrence and Kevin Biegel had dropped the idea in favor of one that was much lower-concept, but also much more entertaining: just let the very funny people in the cast be funny together. By that point, the title and the memory of those early episodes had proven too big a barrier for (re)entry for many viewers, but "Cougar Town" has been one of TV's better comedies for most of its run, and will wind up making six seasons by the time it's through.
The future for the new NBC sitcom "Undateable," which Lawrence is producing with Adam Sztykiel, seems much hazier, in part because of so many problems in the present. It's a traditional multi-camera sitcom (shot on a stage, in front of a studio audience encouraged to laugh early and often), commissioned at a time when NBC had bigger plans to get back into the multi-cam game. Instead, the network wound up with no companion show for it, so instead "Undateable" winds up airing out of season, and with back-to-back episodes each Thursday at 9 and 9:30. There's always a chance it could surprise in the ratings and get renewed, but NBC sure doesn't seem enthusiastic about it.
And, like "Cougar Town," the early episodes get too caught up in an ill-considered premise and various other gimmicks that the show would probably do better moving beyond.
The idea is a basic "Odd Couple" variation, with a hint of another current NBC show, "About a Boy." Chris D'Elia (by far the best thing about one of NBC's recent multi-cam experiments, "Whitney") plays Danny, an aging stud who discovers that all of his cool friends are getting married (or, as Danny calls it in an unfortunate running joke, "buried") and are therefore not free to hang out and be awesome together.
"This was acceptable in your 20s," his sister Leslie (Bianca Kajlich) tells him, "but you're pushing 30, and it's getting creepy... No one wants to be the 40-year-old guy who goes to the bar alone."
In search of new friends, and a new roommate, he stumbles upon Justin (Brent Morin), a nerd who owns an unsuccessful bar where he and his fellow geeks hang out and wonder why they have so much trouble getting women (or, in the case of gay friend Brett, men) to go out with them. Through them, Danny finds both a new inner circle and a purpose: to teach these losers how to get lucky, by any means necessary.
Even though I'm a longtime fan of Lawrence shows, the "Undateable" pilot was a real chore to get through, in part because Danny is just such an obnoxious collection of dude-bro stereotypes, in part because so much of the show — which is heavily improvised — is clearly aimed at exciting people in the back row of the studio audience. While I'm sure Justin's constant singing, various bits of dancing and other slapstick played really well if you were in the room for the taping, a lot of it is dripping with flop sweat when it plays out through a TV set.
Later episodes get better, because they start moving away from the idea of Danny as some kind of sexual Jedi master whom the others are lucky to be learning from — by the fifth and sixth episodes I watched, the other characters had more or less recognized that he's a big loser in his own way. And though there's still a lot of stuff directed at the folks in the cheap seats, the talents and strange energy of the actors — particularly stand-up comic Ron Funches, whose jokes are as funny for this soft-spoken, almost Southern delivery as for their content — starts to perk things up.
The show is also buoyed by the warm comic energy of Briga Heelan as the bartender and the object of Justin's affection. Unfortunately, she's on loan from Lawrence's TBS comedy "Ground Floor," and is in only a limited number of episodes, even though that relationship is clearly set up as one of the core parts of the series.
Under better circumstances — a network with more obvious faith in the show, a lead actress who didn't have a day job she had to get back to — I could see "Undateable" evolving into something quite good. But the start is rough, and I fear NBC won't give Lawrence and Sztykiel the time or freedom to make the necessary tweaks that most young comedies need.
Lawrence has talked about how networks are only buying high-concept comedy pitches now — that the "funny people hang out and drink too much wine" incarnation of "Cougar Town" would never have been ordered in the first place. So maybe the grating buddy comedy version of "Undateable" isn't so much a repeated mistake as a necessary evil to get it on the air. But at this point, NBC might have been better off skipping over the first episode or two and leading with something that offers a hint of what "Undateable" could become under healthier circumstances, rather than what it started as under these murky ones.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org