Best Friends Forever debuts tonight on NBC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
On the one hand, the characters in Best Friends Forever speak with a patter that feels like few other shows on TV. It’s zippy and erudite and it moves. On the other hand, it can be incredibly annoying. There’s a reason most other shows don’t have dialogue that moves as quickly as the talk does on this show, and that’s because listening to this much zippiness, particularly when crammed into just over 20 minutes, prompts something very like a headache. The show’s trying to cram in so much story and dialogue and character stuff that it never just relaxes and takes a deep breath. There’s so much going on—and so much the show is trying to do—that none of it lands. It’s a remarkably busy show that ultimately feels just a little empty. Put another way: If everything’s trying to be funny, then eventually nothing is.
The show was created by Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham, who are veterans of the Upright Citizens Brigade. The method St. Clair and Parham use to write the show is genuinely fascinating, and it seems like the sort of thing that could work to produce a truly great TV series (if not quite this one). The two record themselves improvising the scenes that will be required in the story, filling in dialogue for all of the characters. They then transcribe that improvisation, then whittle it down into shorter scenes that consist of just the best jokes. This means that even at its worst, the series’ dialogue boasts a lived-in quality that most comedies don’t have. There are few obvious setups and punchlines here. These are just moderately amusing people, having moderately amusing conversations, and when the scenes abruptly shift to dramatic fights, it feels a bit more natural than it might on a more heavily scripted sitcom.
St. Clair and Parham play best friends—also named Jessica and Lennon in what’s almost certainly a huge coincidence—who live on separate coasts. Jessica lives in San Francisco, while Lennon remains in the two’s old stomping grounds of New York. Lennon’s now dating a guy named Joe (Luka Jones, who looks surprisingly similar to Happy Endings' Adam Pally, who played Joe in the original pilot), and the two have moved in together. Jessica lives with her husband. All is well for about a minute, which is how long it takes for Jessica to be served divorce papers via FedEx (and two-day shipping, no less). In the space of a jump-cut, Jessica’s back living with Lennon, trying to merge her former life with her friend’s new life with Joe. Along the way, she’ll get reacquainted with the neighbors she left three years ago and the guy whose heart she obviously broke when she married her no-good husband.
It’s not a terribly original premise, but there are some interesting things in it. In particular, the relationship among Jessica, Lennon, and Joe is one that has the potential to be fascinating. We’ve got lots of shows about women who are friends, and we’ve got lots of shows about couples just beginning serious relationships, but we don’t really have one about the Venn diagram intersection between those two subsets. By placing all three of these people in the same apartment, Best Friends Forever gets into interesting notions, like how Lennon can have one favorite movie for when she’s with Jessica and another for when she’s with Joe. The show doesn’t really have anything new to say about how women and men are different (in fact, almost everything it has to say is cliché), but there’s the spark of something interesting here, and that might flourish with time.
The problem is that NBC only sent out the show’s pilot, and the show’s pilot isn’t the greatest foot forward. There’s a surprising amount of back-story for a low-key comedy about upper-class white people having relationship problems, and the show isn’t always the best at shoehorning in the exposition. (Lennon brings up Jessica’s husband cheating on her once before out of nowhere in a later scene.) The show almost feels frantic about making sure we know absolutely everything that’s happened in the past of these characters. Sometimes, that’s handled well—as when the pilot revolves around a tradition of a gathering called a “Lazy Sunday” that Lennon and Jessica used to stage when the two were living together. Sometimes, it’s handled poorly—as when the other guy and Jessica discuss the details of how he ruined her wedding, things they’d both be intimately aware of.
More problematic is just how busy the show is. This is a show that doesn’t spend a single moment to breathe. A relentless pace is one of the strengths of the single-camera comedy, but there has to be a point where it’s just too fast. All of the characters on Best Friends Forever talk a mile a minute from the central threesome to an Italian deli owner down the street to the precocious and wise-beyond-her-years 9-year-old girl that lives in the same building as Lennon and Jessica. What’s more, the conversations will zoom from angry conflict to light-hearted banter so quickly and so inexplicably that it sometimes seems like St. Clair and Parham didn’t trust their show to go without jokes for too long. (The showrunner is Alexa Junge, whose work on Friends is a great example of how to do more dramatic scenes in a sitcom.) The characters will be in a fight, and then they’ll be joking about that fight, with basically no grey zone in between.
There’s nothing wrong with tonal shifts or with a fast pace. But a pilot is often all about getting to know a series’ world and characters, taking the time to make sure we know what’s going on before heading off to the next thing. This pilot feels so frantic that as soon as one thing is established, another thing is rounding the bend, as in a scene where Lennon and Jessica try to talk through how the “Lazy Sunday” party will play out and eventually begin rearranging the living room (and removing Joe’s favorite chair, of course) pretty much out of nowhere. The whole scene plays so abruptly and weirdly that it makes them seem like awful people, who wouldn’t even stop for a second to think that Joe might have some thoughts on the matter as well. Indeed, there are too many scenes where one of the characters—particularly Jessica—comes off as something of a terrible person, and the fast pace of the show means that things that are meant to be quirky instead come off as abrasive. Slowing things down can give time for reaction shots and more subtle acting, and those are things the show just doesn’t have time for in its current incarnation.
There are enough good ideas and scenes in this pilot that sticking with the show for its six-episode order shouldn’t be too hard. Parham and St. Clair’s methods for producing the show are different enough that giving them time to find the show’s voice doesn’t seem like the worst idea in the world, either. But one hopes that the two realized the pilot’s best moments are where the characters just hang out and watch TV and riff off of each other, not the big moments that are meant to be wildly hilarious or deeply dramatic. Best Friends Forever works best when it’s breezy; it can’t sustain a lot of weight.