Men At Work debuts tonight on TBS at 10 p.m. Eastern.
All you need to know about why Men At Work doesn’t work stems from the fact that Danny Masterson is its lead. In a supporting role, Masterson can be a fun actor. Hell, he might even make a good sitcom lead in some other series. But this is supposed to be a wacky, over-the-top show about overgrown frat boys and their antics, and Masterson’s whole deal is that he’s very still and then says something wry and sarcastic. He’s a spice you use in addition to a bunch of other flavors, not the main ingredient, at least not when all of your other actors are playing variations on the same basic guy. A sitcom built around Masterson sounds like a good idea at first, but it seems as if this wasn’t constructed for Masterson’s specific skillset at all. Throughout tonight’s pilot, when he’s supposed to seem morose about his long-time girlfriend leaving him, he mostly just seems mildly put out.
Men At Work also has just about the most generic premise imaginable: Four guys work at a magazine and deal with love. A generic premise isn’t always a problem for a sitcom, as plenty of comedies have gotten by with ultra-low-concept premises before. (The standard answer to this question is Cougar Town, which is just, “middle-aged people drink together,” but also there’s Happy Endings, which is basically, “These people are friends!”) But those comedies showed some sort of spark in the writing or the performances. Men At Work is filled with actors who seem to sleepwalk through their roles until it’s time for them to sell something, at which point, they oversell their antics. It makes everybody in the show feel vaguely manic-depressive, and it’s too bad that’s not as interesting as it sounds.
Masterson plays Milo, whose longtime girlfriend, Lisa (Amy Smart, in a cameo), has just left him for some guy named Paul. He’s having trouble adjusting to this news, which Masterson indicates mostly by staring into the middle distance throughout the episode. He works at a magazine—what the magazine’s title, specialty, or subject matter is isn’t clear throughout the pilot, the only episode TBS sent out (probably a bad sign, since the network is debuting an additional episode this evening)—and that’s where his three best friends work too. James Lesure plays Gibbs, the sort of consummate ladies man who only exists in sitcoms. Michael Cassidy plays Tyler, whose role seems nebulous but who the press notes say “brings a dose of style and sophistication to the group.” (Okay.) And then there’s Adam Busch as Neal, the token nerd, who’s the only one in a long-term relationship now that Milo has broken up with Lisa. Meredith Hagner plays his girlfriend, and the closest thing the first episode has to a plot involves Neal trying to figure out how to “talk dirty” to her. Would you believe it involves talking about things that are messy and then things that are horrifying?
It’s hard to work up a good hate for Men At Work. Mostly, the show is just there to remind us that whenever sitcoms become popular again, there’s such a rush to pick up new ones that a lot of bland and mediocre ones get swept along in that tide. This one is from actor Breckin Meyer, and it’s not immediately clear what, exactly, Meyer is hoping to do with his show. There are bizarre tonal shifts that last about 30 seconds—seriously, the conclusion of this episode is scored to The Avett Brothers but lasts all of 20 seconds and comes out of a not-particularly-funny threesome joke. There’s loud, somewhat atonal music. The laugh track is used particularly half-heartedly, to the point where it’s obvious that whoever’s in charge of post-production uses the same laugh sounds for several jokes. (It’s possible that the show films before a live-studio audience, but it feels too airless to have done so, and it seems unlikely anyone in a live setting would laugh at these jokes the way the laugh box laughs at them here.) In nearly every aspect, it feels so generic that there’s no good reason to get all that mad at it.
The ensemble occasionally strains to garner laughs. They’re cleary trying to have good chemistry, even if they don’t especially nail it. There’s a scene with Busch and Hagner that almost attains being amusing, simply because Busch really tries to sell a lame bit about what he finally says to his girlfriend when she pressures him to talk dirty. (And, yes, it never gets less disconcerting to have Warren from Buffy The Vampire Slayer hanging out around the edges of this show, even if he looks fairly different now.) Some of the stuff at the bar comes close to having comic rhythm, but then the editor cuts away before any momentum can even begin to build. As a result, nearly everybody feels tired, like entertainers giving a school assembly and shouting at bored teenagers who’d rather be anywhere else. It’s doubtful this will become anybody’s favorite show. It’s just something that’s going to be on because somebody leaves the TV on.
All of this is exemplified by the fact that the pilot doesn’t really have a plot or even the hint of a story or character development or any element that would tie the pieces of the episode together. Lisa leaves Milo. He looks a little bummed about that, but mostly, he looks like he’s eaten an unpleasant meal but doesn’t want to bother anyone about it. Gibbs goes over to Tyler’s place and runs into his cleaning lady, and is impressed by how good-looking she is. You can probably imagine where things go from there. Neal struggles to talk dirty to his girlfriend. She’s disappointed with his efforts.
What’s notable about all of these “storylines” is that they just end with a bit of dialogue or some similar shrug of a final beat with several minutes to go. Gibbs sleeps with the maid, then feels unapologetic about it, then finally apologizes after realizing that sleeping with her kept her from what Tyler pays her to do. (Seriously, that’s the resolution.) Milo is sad, and that’s meant to be the connective tissue here, but there’s just nothing more to it than Masterson staring blankly into the middle distance and his friends running around him making wild and crazy noises. The Neal storyline comes the closest to acting like an actual storyline, but it’s clearly meant to be the C-story, so there’s not a lot of it. And Tyler… it’s not immediately clear who he’s supposed to be.
The end of the pilot pitches this as a series about a bunch of wild and crazy guys who lead exciting single lives. It’s the kind of show you’re supposed to watch as a 20-something and say, “Hey, that’s my life!” or watch as an older person and say, “I remember when that was my life!” But everybody on the show feels like they’ve been bought at a figurine shop and unwrapped, then cruelly forced to dance for our benefit. There are occasional stabs at edge—a curse word is bleeped—but they quickly fall away in favor of stock sitcom plots. In the episode’s tag, the other three guys do a dance meant to indicate something of a sexual nature (it’s not immediately clear what) while Milo flirts with a waitress, and he says, “They’re always like that!” But they’re really not. Everybody’s sleepwalking through their lives on Men At Work, even the writers.