Romantically Challenged debuts tonight on ABC at 9:32 p.m. EDT.
For reasons that may become obvious in a couple of weeks, I've been watching a lot of Who's the Boss? lately. It's a show that's better than its reputation, though not by so much that it's a hidden classic or anything. What it has is smart character interplay, crafted by writers who clearly thought through how all of the characters would relate to each other. And it has actors who make up for what they lack in talent with sheer, raw charisma. Katherine Helmond, of course, is an all-time sitcom great (even if everything she did after Soap had sucked, she'd earn huge points for that show), but you can't call Tony Danza anything like a great (or even good) actor. What he has is a ton of charisma, and his sense of playful fun kept the series from getting too bogged down and spread out to the other two actresses in the cast, Judith Light and Alyssa Milano.
Having watched Who's the Boss? again, ABC's desire to get Milano starring in a multi-camera sitcom - a goal the network has been pursuing for what feels like the entirety of the time Milano's been around since Charmed ended - makes a little more sense. Like Danza, I wouldn't call her a great sitcom actress, but there's something very appealing at her core, and that something makes it hard to watch something and not just instinctively like her. I'm sure a lot of this is due to Milano being an attractive woman and all of that, but she's got that ineffable star quality that is just big enough for TV but too small for the movies. She's a TV star, and she knows it, and she's good at it.
It's a shame, then, that ABC's latest attempt - and the first to actually make it to the air - Romantically Challenged, is such a bland show. I was going to say it was a "shitty" show, but it doesn't even really merit that much attention. It's just another generic sitcom about singles in the big city (Pittsburgh, in this case), and it doesn't even have an intriguing storytelling device underpinning it, like creator Ricky Blitt's previous series, The Winner, which was also bland and generic but at least had an interesting conceit inside of it somewhere. Romantically Challenged is a show that's seemingly dropped in from 1995, when every network was rushing to clone Friends and didn't realize that what made that show work was a vague point-of-view and an enjoyable cast.
At the center of Romantically Challenged are four singles, all of whom are, well, you can read the title. Milano's Rebecca Thomas has just gotten divorced after a fairly lengthy marriage (that followed an even lengthier relationship - it's here we all realize how old Alyssa Milano is and feel sad for our wasted youths). Kelly Stables' Lisa is the standard sitcom flirt who's never even had a relationship. Kyle Bornheimer's Perry is the stable, slightly neurotic, workaholic, who supports his friend and roommate, Shawn (Josh Lawson), a wannabe writer who spends all day hacking away at short stories. That's it. There's no real reason these people are friends other than the fact that they're all attractive people living in vague proximity to each other. (Well, Lisa and Rebecca are supposed to be sisters, but the show lets us know that solely by having them state often that they're sisters.)
It's extremely important in casting a TV show that you build a central unit with a believable chemistry. If it's a workplace show, obviously, you want co-worker chemistry. For a family show, you want family chemistry. And so on. Too often, TV chemistry is written off as having two people we want to see sleep together (and if that's the case, then the only chemistry of that sort here is between Bornheimer and Lawson - if you thought the Chandler and Joey thing was bad for subtle homoeroticism ...). But there's a wide world of making sure your ensemble fits together just right, and too many shows throw a lot of attractive people at the problem and hope they spark. That's exactly what's happened with Romantically Challenged, which has some talented actors (the already working on another pilot Bornheimer, in particular) who all seem to be starring in four different shows. These people don't feel like lifelong friends any more than the castaways on Lost did in their first episode. Needless to say, this is not a good thing.
In the episode I screened (which may not be the episode that airs tonight, about which more later), Rebecca is trying to get over her divorce by finding her first one-night stand. This is a "stop me if you've heard this one" kind of plot, but that's fine. You've never seen a sitcom that was built on completely unfamiliar elements, after all. Naturally, she turns to Lisa to help her through this traumatic phase, since Lisa knows all about it. From there, things proceed exactly as you'd expect. Over in the B-story, Shawn and Perry are dealing with the fact that Shawn has taken a massive hit to his ego by having Perry take care of him like he does (and, seriously, they read WAY more as a gay couple). Naturally, Shawn tries to go get a job. Even more naturally, he has absolutely no work experience (he didn't even figure out a way to list himself as a "freelancer") and can only get hired at a last ditch application place.
It's all the sort of stuff you've seen before, and it plays out with the minimum of originally constructed jokes or even kinds of jokes. There's a lengthy runner about prison rape that the live studio audience finds hilarious. There's a scene where one character surprises the other by turning around slowly in a big chair. There's a scene where one character has to do a shitty job and the other character comes across them, and the first character says, "I don't work here!" Look, I think that one of the things that makes a good comedy work is predictability, but when you don't have original characters or an original idea for a show, you'd better have sparkling joke writing and great actors to deliver it who have terrific chemistry. Romantically Challenged has absolutely none of those things. If you watch it, it won't be so terrible that you'll feel like you've wasted your life, but you will wonder why you even watched it at all.
- As mentioned above, ABC has been switching and swapping out the episodes that were put up on their press site for screening. I think the episode I ended up seeing is the one that will air tonight (at least, according to Yahoo TV, it is), but if you see something different, let me know if it's somehow tons better than what I saw. I am doubtful.
- I am generally not in favor of sitcom characters lying for no particular reason. But there is a moment late in this episode where Rebecca tells the truth, and it's in a situation where she would - and SHOULD - totally lie! It really makes her seem like even more of an idiot than she's supposed to be.
- I am not sure whether I like Stables or not. She looks like Leslie Mann and sounds like Megan Mullally, and that doesn't work as well as it might. On the other hand, she's the only one trying to put new spins on some of these lines, so ...