The Paul Reiser Show debuts tonight on NBC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Usually, when TV networks make copycat versions of other shows, they go out of their way to make the new show as much like the original as humanly possible. In the case of The Paul Reiser Show, a weird copycat of Curb Your Enthusiasm starring a different ‘90s sitcom fixture, NBC and co-creators Reiser and Jonathan Shapiro didn’t copy the original well enough. Curb is often one of the most formulaic shows on television, but it gets away with that thanks to an acid-black comic sensibility, a curmudgeonly core, and some great comic improvisation. The Paul Reiser Show takes most of the trappings of Curb but misses almost all of the soul, and that makes it feel oddly empty, like a bunch of junior high kids putting on a Tennessee Williams play with all of the suggestive bits chopped out.
Paul Reiser stars as Paul Reiser, former star and co-creator of Mad About You, now content to putter around the house, run errands for his wife, and take care of the kids. He’s got more money than he knows what to do with, and he’s heading into his later years without any real need to make more or challenge himself. His best friends are all other fathers of kids at his school, and we occasionally see his agent and a junior agent who also works at that company, who keep trying to find things for Paul to do or keep shipping his visage out to other countries, where Mad About You is apparently still quite popular. The core of the show, then, is just Paul going out and about and having various wacky adventures, even as he considers restarting his career via becoming a game show host (in tonight’s debut episode) or starring in a film overseas (in the May 5 episode).
The problem with all of this becomes apparent the second Larry David pops up onscreen in tonight’s episode. David, who refused to have anything scripted for him, according to our interview with Reiser, shows that the best way to make this sort of material play is to improvise most of the dialogue. The story can be put in place by writers who know how to structure such a thing, but the actors should play around with the dialogue to give it the loose feel of real life. Similarly, David genuinely knows how to play a curmudgeon. Everybody keeps telling Paul that he’s a really mean, cranky guy, but he comes off as someone who occasionally gets a little pissy about something but never lets it go too far. It’s hard to take the show’s attempts at black comedy or cringe comedy seriously when Reiser is always there to offer an affable smile after they happen.
Similarly, this show is heavily scripted and feels like it. Despite the fact that it’s filmed in a style that’s closer to something like Curb or even Modern Family (in that it feels roughly like there’s a documentary crew following Paul around, though there’s nothing like direct-to-the-camera confessionals here, outside of every episode opening with Paul offering a little monologue), the series runs almost entirely on the rhythms of a ‘90s multi-camera sitcom. Paul’s friends are all wacky sitcom archetypes, from Ben Shenkman as an uptight dad who worries about everything to Omid Djalili as a goofy foreigner (whose consignment warehouse seems to be the only thing Reiser and Shapiro know how to use to start up plots). His wife (Amy Landecker) is of the long-suffering variety. He’s outsmarted by cute kids and cats.
Frankly, this all becomes very weird. I laughed a couple of times in the four episodes screened (mostly at Djalili, who really commits to playing a sitcom type), but the overall effect was of the show setting up comic situations and comic characters but not really doing the work to make them funny. I always knew where I was supposed to be laughing, but the show was simultaneously too obvious and too busy to actually get me laughing. David is funny in his short appearance because he commits to getting absolutely every single laugh he can out of the absurdly simple sitcom premises. For example, tonight’s tag scene involves Larry wondering if Paul thinks that Larry is gay. It’s not a very original premise, but David keeps riffing on it until he gets the laughs he wants, dammit. Reiser mostly sits and watches him.
The rest of the show has the same problem. Where Curb commits to getting every laugh it can out of fairly simple premises, this show keeps piling more and more complications on top of the ideas it already has, until there are four or five different comedic situations running concurrently, most intersecting through Paul. This might work if the pace were amped up to reflect the sheer amount of stuff happening (as might happen on Arrested Development, say), but The Paul Reiser Show keeps pausing for hammy jokes and for broadly played moments that would work much better in front of a live studio audience. Say what you will about a live studio audience’s interruptions for laughter, but in the early going of a show, an audience can be invaluable because it keeps actors and writers from getting complacent. And complacent may be the single best word to describe The Paul Reiser Show.
The Paul Reiser Show, then, is just the latest comedy to waste what’s a pretty good cast—Reiser can be a lot of fun when he wants to be, which isn’t here, and the other actors are all at least game—and a premise that might have worked and has worked before on something that feels tired as soon as it debuts. It’s also another show caught in between an edgier sensibility and the sorts of things you need to do to make it on a network (or the sorts of things Reiser might have in his bag of tricks from the Mad About You days). This show could have worked if it edged more toward the darkly comic improvisation of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Or it could have worked if Reiser had just committed to doing a very traditional sitcom. Instead, it’s caught in the middle, and everything about it feels off-putting and weird. It’s not the worst sitcom of this TV season, but it’s certainly the least palatable.
A note: Tonight’s episode, which goes out of its way to set up just who Reiser is in this show’s universe and how that Reiser intersects with our Reiser AND tries to set him up as a cranky curmudgeon, very much feels like a pilot for this show. In particular, the moment when Larry David suggests to Reiser that he should get his own show like Curb Your Enthusiasm feels like a sly wink at what we’ve been seeing. It’s weird, then, to see the show’s fourth episode (airing May 5) and realize that this is ACTUALLY the show’s pilot. Paul meets a character he’s already talked to as an old friend in two earlier episodes, the show ladles on exposition about who all of the people in his life are, and some of the sets and actors are different. It’s the most blatant case of a pilot being shifted to later in the order I’ve seen in ages, and it only contributes to the overall sense that this is a sitcom produced by aliens who have observed our Earth traditions and wish to recreate them.