Better With You

Throughout this TV season, I’ve been watching each “friends and relations in various relationship stages” sitcom as they've debuted—Traffic Light, Perfect Couples, Happy Endings, what-have-you—and yet the only one I keep returning to week after week is the squarest of the bunch, Better With You. It’s not just that I think Better With You is funnier than its competition; it’s also that it has a better sense of what it’s trying to be. All those other shows were greenlit in part because of the success of Modern Family, so each in their own way tries by turns to be sweet, sweeping, and of-the-moment. At their core, though, all three are in the tradition of Friends, in that they feature a half-dozen youngish people, sitting around and joking and philosophizing about life’s minutiae. They’re all funny at times and groaningly contrived at others, and each features an actor or character or two that I’d like to promote to some kind of All-Star Edition of this particular sitcom genre. And yet I don’t watch any of them regularly, because whenever I check out an episode I get annoyed by the lazy reliance on smutty jokes and the overall smug attitude, which implies that the writers think that these sitcoms are hipper than they actually are.

Better With You, on the other hand, doesn’t pretend to be anything its not. It’s a three-camera sitcom with laughter, and though it apes the snappy, time-bending structure of How I Met Your Mother, the show derives most of its humor from one of the oldest subjects around: kooky in-laws. Kurt Fuller and Debra Joe Rupp play Joel and Vicky Putney, retired old marrieds with quirks aplenty. Jennifer Finnigan plays their oldest daughter, Maddie, a fussy attorney who’s been in a committed, non-married relationship with hotel manager Ben (Josh Cooke) for nearly a decade. Joanna Garcia plays the youngest Putney, Mia, a good-natured-but-selfish entrepreneur who’s engaged to be married to Casey (Jake Lacey), a handsome hippie goofball. Each episode starts and ends by showing how three different couples deal with some common couples’ issue—like sharing the last piece of cake—and then the bulk of any given episode follows the characters as they have some disagreement that leads to them deceiving each other and forming fleeting alliances before they all reconcile (usually to their mutual dissatisfaction). The show is reliably formulaic, fast-paced, and very funny when it really gets cooking.

Tonight’s episode, sadly, didn’t cook that much—unlike last Wednesday’s episode, which was a riff on “how we met” stories that got progressively more farcical as each characters’ lies were uncovered. Airing on a Monday to get a little exposure from the Dancing With The Stars crowd, “Better With Dancing” suffers from one of Better With You’s most persistent storytelling flaws: trying to pretend that the characters’ silly non-problems are universal. (Pretty much every one of these “couples hanging out” shows has this problem.) In the A-story, Mia is annoyed with Casey because in their practices for the big first dance at their upcoming wedding, he’s shown himself to be an absolute dud of a hoofer. Their dance instructor, though, sniffs out the truth: Casey is an amazing dancer but dances badly on purpose, because he knows that women hate it when their men are the better dancers. (Am I right, ladies? No seriously, I’m asking… I’ve never heard of this being an issue.)

The Casey/Mia storyline generates some funny moments, like when Vicky teaches Mia the power of the well-placed insult to get a man to shape up, or when Casey comes clean and explains that because he grew up in a house full of girls, he’s “great at girl things,” like wrapping presents, telling shades of yellow apart, and handwriting. (“I can ice the crap out of a cake,” he half-boasts.) But again, the dopiness of the premise is a major drag.

The episode’s B-story has a more believable premise. Maddie never wants to talk to Ben’s mom, who calls constantly—or every other Saturday, to be exact—which irritates Ben since he sees Joel and Vicky pretty much every day. (Joel even came over and crawled into bed with them once in the middle of the night; he thought Ben was a body pillow.) But Ben takes his irritation a step too far, insults her parents in absentia, and has to rely on hotel guest Larry King for advice on how to win Maddie back. King advises Ben to take Maddie to the library and make love to her, which he duly does. But before he can make up with Maddie, she’s already spilled what he said about her folks to her folks, so he has to go back to Larry King for advice on how to placate old people. (Answer: Lie to them, and then ply them with coffee-flavored candy in a decorative dish.)

The King cameo is bizarre and stunt-y, and though I usually enjoy the friction between Ben and the Putneys, the whole “Maddie tells her parents what Ben really thinks about them” bit was a little too uncomfortable. All in all, this was hardly a showcase episode for Better With You, though it had scattered moments I liked, including one off-hand comment of King’s, that Ben “shuffleboarded” his argument with Maddie. (He landed his first point about Maddie being too distant to his mother, and then knocked it out with with his second point about how awful her parents are.)

Still, I can’t help it: I like this show and hope it gets a second season. I know three-camera sitcoms aren’t cool, but there are some advantages to the format, including a level of energy in the performances that single-camera shows try to get in the editing. There’s also an inviting warmth to the look of these kinds of shows, even when the characters are snipe-y.

Mainly though, what I like about Better With You is that it embraces its characters’ flaws. One thing that annoys me about a lot of the Friends clones is that they establish the circle of pals as imperfect, yet vastly superior to anyone who’s not in their little group. (That’s what bothered me most about the two episodes of Happy Endings that I’ve watched.) In Better With You, the leads aren’t terrible people, but they’re clearly not as cool as they think they are, which makes them more endearing. By no means do I think Better With You is a great show or one that any fan of quality TV should make time for. But I’d miss these characters if the show got canceled. So I’ll be watching Wednesday’s episode this week, too, and hoping it’s better. 

Stray observations:

  • The Putneys don’t understand how to use the “If I ____, I’d be rich” construction.
  • According to Vicky, it wasn’t bad for you to drink while pregnant 30 years ago
  • Ben tells Maddie that she’s lost her street cred because she snitched on him. Ben knows about street cred because he went to hospitality school in Baltimore. (Okay, Bethesda.) 
  • Joel and Vicky don’t see why Casey’s “zombie dance” is so terrible; they see it as an acceptable way for the non-dance-inclined to take to the floor. (Vicky describes it as not great, not terrible… like marriage.)
  • Didn’t think this episode had an especially funny cold open, though I did like Ben insisting that he’d never love again if Maddie died (or fell into a coma), but that he would buy a boat, and make time to visit every baseball stadium.
  • What is the deal with older men and towels?
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