Partners debuts tonight on CBS at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Todd VanDerWerff: Thanks to a fantastic timeslot, sandwiched between How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls, Partners easily has the best shot of any new comedy at making it to a second season. The CBS Monday night comedy bloc has been the dominant one for years now, and it shows no real signs of slowing down, even with Two And A Half Men heading off toward Thursdays. Assuming CBS’ gamble that 2 Broke Girls is ready to anchor its own hour pays off (and there’s no reason to suspect it won’t), the whole night should flow smoothly once again, causing TV fans baffled by the success of the studio-audience-enabled, multi-camera sitcoms to shake their heads in confusion at just how easily CBS seems to spin gold from a genre the other networks have mostly abandoned.
If Partners has such a good shot at success, then, it’s just a pity that it has to be one of the worst comedies of the fall.
For the most part, Partners is an unrelenting assault of gay stereotype jokes, moments when a word in Yiddish is meant to stand in for the joke, and lots and lots of comical misunderstandings that cause havoc in the carefully ordered lives of the characters, simply because these people are incapable of sticking to a plan or coming clean with each other. Oh, yes. And two of the characters are a gay couple, one of whom is a business partner (and best friend) of a straight guy. The two share an architectural firm, where they talk frankly about love and life and making their way in the world today. And if all of that sounds impressive and exciting and cutting edge to you, then, congratulations. You live in 1996.
There’s a good reason for Partners to seem stale: Its creators, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, have been shopping it around the TV industry since the early 2000s. The two, who created Will & Grace, are a straight man and a gay man working together as a writing team, and they’ve long thought that dynamic would make for a good TV show. To be sure, there was probably a time in TV history when the sheer balls of making a show that argued forcefully that a gay guy and a straight guy could be best friends would have given the show something of a free pass, even if it wasn’t all that funny (which it isn’t). Will & Grace, which had its problems but at least had a surprising, believable relationship at its core, got a pass for this reason, but it also came out in 1998 and was the first real test the networks made of whether or not Ellen DeGeneres had made primetime TV safe for gay characters and depictions of LGBT issues.
Will & Grace was a big enough hit—with audiences and critics—that Kohan and Mutchnick probably could have just ridden it into the ground. Instead, the two were pushed off the program around the midpoint of its run and have been trying to get another hit on the air ever since. The idea that’s morphed into Partners dates to around this time as well, as if it were an attempt to redo that earlier hit without actually redoing it. All of this is to say nothing of a 1995 Fox series named Partners, which is also about two friends, one of whom has just gotten engaged, who have an architectural firm together. That show’s creator, Jeff Greenstein, has essentially called this Partners a direct copycat on Twitter, which adds even fewer levels of freshness to the series. Now, of course, a comedy doesn’t need to have the most innovative premise or the freshest setup to be funny, provided the characters are strong and the jokes are good. But on that level, Partners feels like a leftover from the back of the fridge as well.
The show’s central duo are Louis (Michael Urie) and Joe (David Krumholtz), two friends whose relationship dates back to childhood. The two episodes CBS has sent out for review both open with scenes of the two as boys, talking problems out, where most of the jokes stem from the idea that if young Louis is saying he wants to marry Bette Midler, then he must be gaaaaaaaaay. Now that the two have their architectural firm, their lives are more or less stable, which is why the two have settled into long-term relationships. Louis is with Wyatt (Brandon Routh, making his woodenness a comedic asset somehow), a nurse who seems to be the only level-headed person in this bunch. Joe has been dating Ali (Sophia Bush, who seems like she should be funnier with her appealingly raspy voice but just isn’t) for some time, but he’s pretty sure he wants to break up with her.
Naturally, once the straitlaced, buttoned-down Joe gets into the situation where he’s going to break up with Ali and listens to his heart (as per Louis’ advice), he realizes that what he really wants is to be with her forever and ever, so they get engaged. Only, of course, Ali and Louis share a yoga class together, and Louis tries to console Ali on her breakup when she’s just gotten engaged, and the laughs just keep flying! In the second episode, Joe lets slip something sensitive about his sex life to Louis, and Louis decides to try and patch things up by telling Ali that what Joe really wants is someone to be “the woman,” who will cook and clean and such, because all men actually want is a ’50s housewife, “without the racism.” (These are the jokes, people.) Both of these situations resolve about as hilariously as you’re imagining.
What really sucks here is that the cast is remarkably game. There’s a fun energy to scenes that all four of them are in, and Urie, especially, manages to find laughs in lines that have no laughs in them. (Routh tries his best with pointing to a little heart pin he’s wearing and saying, “I have a heart on,” but it’s just the kind of broad, hacky writing that brought down Will & Grace too soon.) Even Bush, the cast’s weakest link, has an appealing energy that might gel into something given enough time for the writers to find something for her to do. If there were a different writing staff writing for these actors, it would be easier to imagine that, hey, this might evolve into something worth looking at. There are moments, particularly in episode two, when just the cast interaction is enough to prompt a handful of smiles.
But that’s not good enough for a show that’s got one of the best timeslots on TV. Kohan and Mutchnick don’t seem to want to find much variance in their characters, and even the heartfelt moments in both episodes play at a level that’s pitched all the way to the back of the hall, lest the audience miss anything. Like The New Normal, Partners is a brand of comedy that might as well be called, “Can you believe people are saying these things?” comedy, a kind of comedy that aims to make viewers laugh as much from shock as from genuinely well-constructed jokes. The problem is that at least The New Normal has the decency to attempt to offend. Partners is trying to shock somebody who’s fallen asleep in front of Cosby in the ’90s and has woken up to grow agitated about a TV show with some gay fellas on it. It’s a show pitched at a different time, which is appropriate, considering it was born in one.
Sonia: In theory, the idea of a sitcom based purely around a friendship sounds great. Friendship plots are often relegated to ensemble casts who can play off of each other or as sideshows in workplace or marriage sitcoms. So Partners starts off appealing, especially as it is about a “non-traditional” friendship: A straight man and a gay man are so devoted to each other that their respective significant others are tangential to their relationship.
But Partners isn’t about friendship. It’s about homophobic jokes and secular Jewishness and superficial New Yorkers, maybe, but not friendship. The central friendship of the show never gets the traction it deserves, which means that the show is already resorting to extremely silly one-off gags to create a narrative. In the second episode, Louis teaches Ali how to make zesty lemon chicken! Hijinks attempt to ensue. Slapping down a frozen chicken on a jewelry-store counter should be relatively funny, but the desperation evident in the gag is a sitcom convention that reminds you of the fifth season of Friends, not the first.
The jokes fall flat partly because there’s no establishment of their friendship except that, tautologically, they are best friends. We see flashbacks to their childhood, where they appear to have been just as dysfunctional as they are now. Joe and Louis’ friendship seems to be based on the acknowledgment of each other’s flaws, which can be summed up thusly: Joe is a loser and Louis is gay. Any sort of joy they might find with each other takes a backseat to loveless sniping. Which leads to the other reason the jokes fall flat: The writing is just terrible. Stereotypes abound in lieu of real humor 90 percent of the time; the other 10 percent is a gag being repeated so many times that the initially amusing becomes rapidly tiresome.
It’s not all bad—Michael Urie and David Krumholtz are both fantastic actors. Urie somehow manages to make Louis’ grating and superficial lines endearing, and Krumholtz adds a gravity to Joe that transcends “loser.” But the first two episodes fail to provide a reason to watch Partners. There’s nothing new, fresh, or interesting here. Even if you like sitcoms that seem trapped in 1996, you can turn to The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother for better writing and more interesting relationships.
Saddest of all is Partners’ idea that friendship means meddling in your best friend’s life without their consent, stereotyping them whenever possible, and taking advantage of them when convenient. In the first two episodes, an act of true friendship happens about once, when Joe sends Wyatt a cake on Louis’ behalf because Louis forgot an important anniversary in Wyatt’s life. It’s sweet and unselfish, and Louis cries over the note (to Wyatt’s confusion, because theoretically Louis wrote the note). It’s a true expression of friendship. It’s no coincidence that it’s also the funniest moment of the first two episodes.