The Exes debuts tonight on TV Land at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
It’s funny how TV Land manages to embody the spirit of old-time television, even as its programming schedule opens up to increased volumes of original programming. Putting a new spin on a TV tradition at least as old as the Andy Griffith Show reruns the network airs every late afternoon, its current policy toward picking up new scripted shows follows the credo that if it worked once, it’ll probably work three or four more times. Following the template established by the network’s Betty Whitesploitation comedy Hot In Cleveland, Mark Reisman’s The Exes drops previously established stars of the small screen (this time Donald Faison, Kristen Johnston, and Wayne Knight) into a multi-camera setup and premise that wouldn’t seem too out of place among the fresher second-run series in the TV Land stable. This time, it’s a comedy centering on three divorced men trying to share an apartment without driving each other crazy. Wait a second…
Yes, that’s the additional component to The Exes nostalgic pull: The cold open of the series’ pilot (written by series creator Mark Reisman, previously of Frasier and Wings) may as well parrot the stentorian narration of The Odd Couple’s intro sequence and lay it under footage of newly divorced Stuart (David Alan Basche) acting all fastidious while his roommates Phil (Faison) and Haskell (Knight) display various shades of womanizing and slovenliness. At the very least, that’d be a quicker way to cut to the meat of the episode, rather than sticking Johnston’s Holly with the first of many expository statements to come. Were it not for the fact that I’m fairly certain Holly is being positioned as a potential romantic interest for Stuart, the evidence from the series première suggests that she was conceived solely as an attorney specializing in divorce and backstory.
That’s too bad, because she and Knight are the only actors who appear comfortable in front of a studio audience here. Faison’s TV work has been strictly single-camera since his brief run through the TGIF lineup in the late 1990s, and it shows through his performance in the pilot. When Stuart peels back the top of Phil’s newspaper to engage in some mid-breakfast rommie-bondin’, Faison’s reaction is big, but it’s not nearly big enough. Faizon’s a skilled enough comedic actor that I have confidence he’ll find his groove as this first season wears on—not that this first look at The Exes reveals a show worth sticking with for any other reasons.
While Faison struggles to rediscover his footing, his co-star Basche simply follows TV Land’s suit and goes with something that’s worked before: Tony Randall’s performance as Felix Unger in The Odd Couple. He’s got the same refined domestic sense and anxious energy Randall brought to that role—though there’s an emotional vulnerability to Stuart that Basche hits a touch too hard during his character’s first post-separation date. In the inverse of Faison’s reaction at the breakfast table, Basche oversells a crying jag in a painfully unfunny fashion, as his character forgets Holly’s advice to not talk about his wife and immediately goes into telling his date how much she reminds him of his ex. (A prefix, The Holly Explaniator 3000 is later points out, Stuart can’t bring himself to use until the final act of the première.) Basche and Faison need to contrast one another if their dynamic is ever going to work, but this isn’t the way to go about doing so.
I am curious (though only morbidly so) to see how The Exes utilizes Wayne Knight in coming episodes. As it stands, Haskell seems like an afterthought in the apartment—a presence Phil mentions he barely acknowledged in the past, and an odd third wheel in an episode that’s primarily about the other two roommates. In the première, he wanders into focus for only a few moments, but in those moments, he’s given the best lines of a mostly dire script—thus playing to Knight’s gifts with snippy, quippy characters (All together now: “Newman!”). Nonetheless, it’s troublesome that the series wants to start at square one for what should be one of its core, pre-established relationships.
Of course, if he maintains such a cursory existence, how ever will the show satisfy those 3rd Rock From The Sun diehards hoping for a fan-service-y rekindling of Johnston and Knight’s fiery, extraterrestrial 3rd Rock romance? Because if such a thing as a “3rd Rock diehard” still exists, he or she is probably the only person excited at the prospect of The Exes. Like a lot of series that filled time on TV Land before the network started making its own shows, the pilot is a cheaply produced, middle-of-the-road production that will do little more than inspire fond memories of television past. Mission accomplished, I suppose.