Mad Love debuts tonight on CBS at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
It’s no stretch to see why Mad Love is airing after How I Met Your Mother in CBS’ weekly lineup: They’re kind of the same show, in a lot of ways. The world has obviously been crying out for yet another show about single white people in the big city (especially single white people who seem to live in a New York straight out of a Top Ten USA guide that consists entirely of tourist attractions and generic bars), and it’s also obviously been crying out for another show with a hopeless romantic who’s just waiting for the right girl to come along, a hopeless romantic who finds himself blown away when that girl comes along in the pilot. Hell, said guy, Jason Biggs, has even been made to kinda LOOK like Josh Radnor, in a way that is not so much a nice throwback to the show on before Mad Love but instead vaguely creepy. The series are even produced using the same hybrid of multi-camera and single-camera techniques (though the use of a laugh track, rather than some sort of studio audience, is fairly blatant here).
And yet I find myself wanting to watch another episode of Mad Love, and I almost wish CBS had sent out a few more for review beyond just the pilot. For that specific subset of people who watch both HIMYM and Two And A Half Men, Mad Love is going to be a relatively painless way to pass the time, even if it almost never makes them laugh. And there’s enough good stuff here where—like ABC’s Mr. Sunshine—if the show can figure out a way to leverage all of that good stuff into a series that’s actually funny and occasionally moving, it could be something worth watching. Comedy’s hard to get right in a pilot. Most sitcoms gel over the course of a number of episodes, often taking up to a whole season to get everything just right. (Heck, that's another thing the show would have in common with HIMYM.) But blah, blah, blah. You’ve heard all of that before. What doesn’t work?
Mad Love is just the latest comedy pilot this television season to take a fantastic cast and utterly strand it in the midst of a situation where it’s trying so, so hard to get people to laugh and mostly failing. The show has only four regulars, but every single one of those regulars could be a sign of something good. Start with leading man (and we’ll get to the show’s pleasantly off-kilter premise in a moment) Tyler Labine. Labine, who’s been the kind of go-for-broke, anything for a laugh dude who succeeds on quirky dramas and single-camera comedies, has nicely modulated his performance here, so he’s simultaneously going over-the-top and making it seem vaguely believable that this guy could be the series’ eventual romantic lead. He’s paired with the always wonderful Judy Greer as Connie, a woman who trades in insult humor and forms an instant hatred of Larry. (You can probably see where this is going.) As Ben and Kate, Biggs and Sarah Chalke are given less to do, but they have an easygoing chemistry, and both are capable of being funny, particularly Chalke.
As mentioned, the premise isn’t bad either. Ben and Kate meet and immediately hit it off. Predictably, there are some complications to their immediate hook-up, but by the end of the pilot, they might as well be saving up for their grandkids’ college fund. Larry and Connie, meanwhile, are just as obviously going to come to fall in love over time, but there’s nothing saying that that note—played so often, but frequently played so well—can’t be fun as well. In particular, the way that the show shifts everything so it focuses on the sidekicks, letting the typical romantic leads be the supporting players, is what will bring me back to this show, even though I’m not a huge fan of the pilot. Telling the story of a typical romantic comedy from the point of view of the guy who’d normally be played by Jack Black or the girl who’d normally be played by, well, Judy Greer is a good one, and Labine and Greer fall very easily into bumping characters who’d normally be supporting ones into leads, something that’s not easy to do.
And yet as good as the cast is and as fun as the premise could be and as generally pleasant as the execution is (if nothing else, CBS has the science of producing enjoyable multi-camera sitcoms down), the show is missing something at its core. It could have something to do with the fact that all of the characters speak in exactly the same cadence and rhythm, as though creator Matt Tarses came up with how he wanted Larry and Connie to speak and then gradually let that seep out to everybody else. The best sitcoms disguise their setup-punchline rhythms inside the feel of more naturalistic dialogue, but all of Tarses’ jokes are right there on the surface, calling too much attention to the fact that most of them are predictable and expected. It’s like Tarses had the start of a good idea with the thought of turning the traditional rom-com on its ear, but he stopped work once he came up with that and didn’t do much to differentiate the characters. Ben and Kate are schmoopy. Connie and Larry hurl insults. And they all have the exact same rhythm to their patter.
The show’s version of New York also feels punishingly small. Granted, HIMYM has just the five regular characters, but it was very quickly tossing in new ideas and new characters as fast as it could, largely due to the fact that its fifth-wheel, Barney, was such a vibrantly performed and written character. On Mad Love, however, there’s no real indication that this world is going to be anything beyond what we see in the pilot, despite the fact that the funniest character just might be Connie’s employer, a bored, stupid trophy wife. Again, this is something that could be fixed in future episodes, but it’s a problem in the pilot, where it occasionally seems like all of New York City is populated just by these four people.
There’s plenty of room for improvement where Mad Love is concerned, particularly in the laughs department, but damned if I don’t hope the show can pull that improvement off. As stated, the premise isn’t bad, and the cast could be terrific if given enough time to gel. There’s lots that’s wrong in the pilot of Mad Love, but I wouldn’t be surprised by the show becoming a must-watch over the course of its first season or early in its second. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised by the show becoming a God-awful train wreck. Writing reviews of TV shows based solely on the pilot is all about predicting the future, but in the case of something like Mad Love, that becomes even more difficult. I’ll give it a few episodes, but the bland, static nature of the pilot doesn’t fill me with confidence. It’s going to need to get better and quickly.