Love Bites

While watching NBC’s Love Bites, live on broadcast with everyone else after NBC chose not to send out screeners, I had Tweetdeck streaming Twitter mentions of the series.

I did this because what interests me most about Love Bites is how the public at large respond to it. Within critical circles, the show has been a bit of an easy target since it first premiered at last year’s upfronts in the plum Thursdays at 10 time slot before getting pulled from that schedule in July and shifting to a summer burn-off after sitting on the shelf all season. However, I doubt very many of those tweeting about the show have any idea that the show has had a somewhat notably rocky development and is (as Todd's alt-text on the image above indicates) a dead show walking, which means that for them this is just a fun summer premiere from a network that with the successful launch of The Voice and the successful return of America’s Got Talent has made an early push for summer supremacy after a pretty dismal season. And so I turned to Twitter as a bit of an experiment, to see how people were taking in this odd duck of a series.

It’s logical to treat the show as an experiment given the fact that it is (or, I suppose, was) an experiment itself. The idea of bringing back the anthology series — in the vein of Love, American Style — is actually kind of fascinating in an era where the difference between “serial” and “procedural” has become more complicated. While there are some serialized elements to Love Bites, with Greg Grunberg and Becki Newton anchoring the show moving forward, the plan is for each episode to contain characters and stories that we might never see again. Now, these stories are not entirely isolated from one another: Grunberg’s Judd appears in two, Newton’s Annie appears in the first story alongside one of the stars of the second story, and an upcoming wedding (between characters played by Kyle Howard and Lindsay Price) is actually central to all three stories. However, this connection isn’t treated as some signal of fate’s power over our relationships, a mystery waiting to be solved (like in ABC’s Six Degrees, for example) — instead, it’s just a convenient way to tell three incredibly rote, not entirely charmless stories about love and the zany situations it inspires.

Watching the series’ pilot, it’s clear that this is really all the show wants to do, or rather all it knows how to do. It is exactly as you would expect: The dialogue shows a writer (in this case creator Cindy Chupack) trying too hard to be hip, the music selections shift from “Wacky Hijinks Soundtrack” to “Pop Songs of The Moment (Or, rather, the moment when they cleared songs with licensing a year ago),” and the stories all wrap themselves up with a pretty bow without a moment of real, honest emotion in sight. Although I generally like the vast majority of the actors featured here, and was surprised at how likeable I found Jennifer Love Hewitt playing an alternate version of herself who dates hockey players and considers having sex with Greg Grunberg, there isn’t enough charm in the world to sell me on these particular tales.

I’m generally resistant to plot summary in reviews to begin with, but here it just ends up sounding silly. A woman (Krysten Ritter) decides to announce that she’s a virgin to pull attention away from her pregnant friend (Newton), only to meet the man of her dreams and find herself trapped in what is most certainly a lie. A man (Kyle Howard) loses his manhood in more ways than one when he gets fired from his job and returns home to learn that his fiance has had her first real orgasm with the help of a battery-operated pal. A married man (Grunberg) boards a plane to discover that his celebrity “exemption,” Jennifer Love Hewitt, is in first class and licking her wounds after a tough breakup, and sets about finding a way to sleep with her. Throw a “Wacky Hijinks ensue” after all of these, and that’s the show — no more, no less.

There were charming moments in these stories, built mainly around the sound principle of “People I like overcoming weak material to remind me why I like them.” It’s hard to be upset with Craig Robinson and Krysten Ritter, for example, and even if his story was by far the most painful to sit through I have some residual appreciation for Kyle Howard from his stint on TBS’ My Boys (which I often forget about, but always miss once I remember it). Becki Newton, although mostly just asked to walk around pregnant, was truly charming on Ugly Betty, and is a solid actress to build a show like this around. Even Greg Grunberg, so tainted by his time on Heroes, manages to craft a half believable chemistry with Love Hewitt in the third story (albeit mainly because it takes up half the episode, and thus has more time to develop).

However, the pilot raises a whole host of questions about where the show goes from here. My mind is wired to think in terms of “serial” and “procedural” even in anthology series fit comfortably into neither category, but Love Bites just seems like such an odd hodgepodge of the two terms that I can't help but keep them in mind. On the one hand, there are clearly some serial elements: They’re unwilling to commit to the anthology entirely, which is why Annie and Judd are participants in stories instead of narrators. But Judd wasn’t meant to be a continuing presence, with Grunberg added to the main cast only after Heroes was officially canceled, which means the series wasn’t initially conceived with that character as a bridge point. And now with two recurring figures, three if we count Judd’s wife Colleen (played here by Pamela Adlon, but played in future episodes by her younger and less-gravelly-voiced doppelganger Constance Zimmer), does that create such a degree of serialization that the lack of serialization in the other storylines will stand out more?

These are all of the questions that likely led NBC to shelve the show for the entire season: Instead of being a confident and modern take on the anthology series for a new generation, it became a show trapped between how it was conceived, how it was developed, and how it was altered when it was clear to everyone involved that those who conceived and developed it really had no idea what they were doing. While I think that the fantasy element of the Love Hewitt storyline makes it a pretty solid standalone piece, the other two stories wrap up too quickly to not push us to ask questions about what happens next. They’re too short to earn a “happily ever after,” and the pretense of serialization makes me yearn for a (better-written) show about a Battlestar Galactica-loving Krysten Ritter. The show wants us to treat these as standalone pieces, not unlike the crimes in a police procedural, but the context in which they appear makes that more challenging than they might have imagined.

I say all of this, of course, despite the fact that these questions will mostly go unanswered: The show won’t be renewed, which means that questions like how they would handle a second season will remain purely hypothetical. This is the kind of show that I would have liked to see evolve over time, to struggle with its identity in a public forum through the kinds of stories it chooses to tell and how it balances this stories. If they actually air all ten episodes, which will depend on tonight’s ratings and whether or not NBC thinks they could draw better with comedy reruns, some part of me would want to keep watching just to see what they thought this show was going to be on a week-to-week basis.

There just isn’t enough here to make that worthwhile, though. Considering that NBC didn’t even bother to spend the money to reshoot the pilot so that Constance Zimmer would be playing Judd’s wife Colleen, creating some hilariously incongruent casting, there likely isn’t anything here worth saving. Some part of me wants it to become a surprise summer hit just to see how NBC reacts, but that seems incredibly unlikely. Instead, it will go down in the books as a pilot they never should have ordered, a show that never got off the ground, and a summer burnoff that will be remembered more for the circumstances of its creation than for the show itself.

However, as I noticed on Twitter, there were some people enjoying this show: Fans of Greg Grunberg, fans of Jennifer Love Hewitt, fans of Krysten Ritter, and fans of light-hearted romantic comedy. This isn’t the right vehicle for any of these people or that particular genre, hampered by weak writing and a general lack of genuine emotion, but I think the idea of it all remains very intriguing. Is an anthology series a viable form of television storytelling on a broadcast network? Would the show work better with or without the “anchors” that promise some degree of long-term character development? Love Bites will never get a chance to answer these questions, its fate already decided by NBC brass, but it gets credit for bringing them to the surface even if it manages nothing else.

And even if it disappears from the schedule yet again after tonight’s premiere.

Stray Observations:

  • I’m always interested in the way shows use a sense of place, so one thing I am legitimately intrigued to see is if they continue to add new cities throughout the season.
  • Of the terrible musical score used in the episode, the “Oh Oh Oh” or whatever it was that was prevalent in the third story was just horrifying.
  • I won’t list all of the clunky attempts at pop culture references, but I think the Anna Paquin and Twilight references stood out as particularly shameless thanks to the whole vampire zeitgeist situation.
  • In terms of tone, parts of the show actually reminded me of ABC’s Happy Endings, a far better show that deals with some similar situations but has a clearer sense of its comic vision and found its rhythm quite successfully. One of the challenges of the anthology form is that comic chemistry never stays the same, and the tone always shifts, so things can’t level off and find a rhythm in the same way as sitcoms can. I just can’t imagine a situation where this show could get itself back on track.
  • The BSG fan in me appreciated the references, but boy did they seem out of place relative to the rest of the episode, and wildly out of place for what I presume to be the show’s main demographic. And while I quite liked the finale, it seems unrealistic for both of them to have seemingly enjoyed it as well, given their conversation that closes the story — I imagine that ending ruined plenty of friendships/relationships given the polarized responses.
  • For those looking for something that taps into romantic comedy while delivering something a bit more satisfying, I point you to Rob Thomas’ Cupid — while the recent remake with Sarah Paulson and Bobby Cannavale didn’t quite work (although, coincidentally, Chupack wrote an episode of the show), the 1998 original with Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall is a charming “procedural” that features budding relationships instead of murders. You can watch the entire series on YouTube (it’s not available on DVD), and Alan Sepinwall did a set of reviews for the show a few years back that you can read as you go along.
  • One person I saw while following Twitter admonished NBC for canceling Perfect Couples but keeping this show on the air: It doesn't make any sense, given the fact that they were actually ordered at the same time and at least Perfect Couples got a chance to air during the actual season, but I still like the idea that there is a Perfect Couples fan out there fighting for the show's honor.