Perfect Couples

Perfect Couples had a sneak preview back in December. We ran this piece then. It debuts in its regular time slot (8:30 p.m. Eastern on Thursdays) tonight on NBC.

When NBC abruptly scheduled a preview of Perfect Couples for after the season finale of the surprisingly high-rated The Sing-Off tonight, it seemed almost like the network was trying to keep critics from weighing in on it. They’d sent out two episodes for review, but just a few days ago. (Many critics haven’t even received the show yet.) And the episode that aired tonight was neither of those episodes, obliging folks in the press to hold off on reviewing until the episodes actually sent begin airing in January. In a way, it’s easy to see why the network did this. Perfect Couples is yet another painfully generic sitcom, distinguished only by the fact that it stars Olivia Munn, and it’s yet another sitcom about upper-middle-class white people dealing with marital foibles. Yet this is the network that keeps sending critics episodes of Outsourced. You’d think they’d know mediocre from awful when they saw it.

Because there’s almost nothing else to say about Perfect Couples. It’s pleasant enough. There are a handful of laughs in it, mostly due to some interesting delivery from the actors. The cast is full of faces you’ll recognize, even if you can’t place some of them. The storylines are painfully generic, except for the times when they’re not making any sense, but the show’s writers will occasionally show that they’re at least trying to differentiate this show from the multitudes upon multitudes of shows about white people in their 20s and 30s that sprung up in the wake of Friends. And it’s not as though you can’t do this kind of show well, at least if How I Met Your Mother is any indication. But Perfect Couples does so little to make itself stand out that it will almost certainly fall into the large bin of generic Friends rip-offs, also containing this season’s Better With You.

Here’s another problem: If you’re going to take a fairly staid multi-camera setup and port it over to a single-camera world, you’d better take full advantage of what single-camera brings to the table. Look at Community, for instance, which is a show with a premise that might have worked just fine in a multi-camera setup. Indeed, the “cool guy is forced to hang out with losers” idea has been at the center of any number of traditional sitcoms, and there’s no reason the show couldn’t have been, say, a kind of riff on Night Court for a new era. The show’s writers are certainly talented enough to make it still funny. Yet that show understands that when you don’t have to pause for audience laughter, you’d better be filling that space with more jokes or with elaborate movie parodies or with heartfelt monologues. The best single-camera comedies work so well because they cram every inch of the show with STUFF to laugh at or stuff to watch. Even the slower-moving faux-documentaries, like The Office or Modern Family or Parks & Recreation, almost always have something new going on at any given time.

Perfect Couples doesn’t get this. At its most basic level, it just wants to be a show about married people dealing with married people things. And that’s fine, but it’s the basis of almost every family sitcom ever. If you want to do that, you need to have something that sets you apart from the rest, and this show has nothing in that sense. Distinctive characters? Virtually every character here is a dopey, insensitive dude or the lady who’s married to him. An intriguing setup? The basic premise here could have been ported in from Goldilocks: One couple communicates too much, one couple fights too much, and one couple is just right. Jokes that go for broke? There are few lines here that aren’t eminently predictable and would be to people who’ve only seen a handful of sitcoms over the years. Breakneck pacing? It’s surprising how little this show tries to push ANYthing, content to just sit back and hang out. And even that might be OK, if the vibe was good enough, but the vibe is as generic as anything else.

If there’s a reason to recommend the show, it’s the cast, which is generally pretty good. Christine Woods, last seen wrapped up in the most convoluted “mole” plot ever on FlashForward, turns out to be winning and funny as Julia. She and Kyle Bornheimer make up the “normal” couple that’s supposed to be the center of the show, and while the series doesn’t give them anything very funny to say, the two actors are usually able to wring chuckles out of the lines anyway. Mary Elizabeth Ellis, best known as the waitress on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, is also very funny here as Amy, taking some pretty staid stuff and sending it way over the top. Her partner, David Walton as Vance, isn’t quite as committed to the idea of the “young, crazy in love couple” as Ellis is, but he does some good work with some of his dopier lines.

The problem, though, comes from Olivia Munn and Hayes McArthur as Leigh and Rex. Munn is almost spectacularly miscast here, as though she came in to read for Amy (a part she could come within a few miles of playing), then was stuck in this role because the producers really wanted Munn on the show but wanted Ellis as Amy (they made the right call in the latter case, at least). Munn’s supposed to be playing a woman who goes out of her way to build the “perfect marriage,” but she doesn’t read that way at all. She reads like someone who’s insane and/or bitchy, and the show doesn’t use this to its advantage at all. McArthur, for his part, seems a little lost playing Rex, who’s your typical emasculated sitcom husband.

If we’re being honest, the episode of Perfect Couples NBC chose to show tonight is at least an indication that the series is getting better from the two episodes I’ve seen that will air next month. Both of those episodes relied too heavily on heavy-handed “wacky” moments and plotting that would never, ever happen. They also strained to create relationships between all of the different characters, though it’s never clear why, say, Julia and Vance would be hanging out together, which just makes it seem like the writers forgot which characters are supposed to be married to each other. Still, tonight’s episode, while not very good, exactly, at least found some interesting things to do with the editing, cross-cutting between the three couples in some funny ways and giving the sense that deep, deep down, someone wants to talk a little bit about the eternal war of the sexes in some sort of interesting way. This sort of cross-cutting is the kind of thing that only a single-camera sitcom can do well, and it comes close to being used well here.

But by and large, this is too little, too late, even within the episode screened tonight. The rest of the show is such a big bag of things you’ve seen done better elsewhere or things that television has been doing since the dawn of time that it can’t help but feel shrug-worthy. There’s the occasional use of an interesting music cue, and A.C. Newman provides the theme song (it was Kings of Leon on the screener), but the whole thing just feels tired. Nothing’s been done to revive this type of show enough to make Perfect Couples a must-see, and what’s there is worth only a shrug. It’s not so bad as to be offensive, but it’s not even really trying to be good.

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