Traffic Light debuts tonight on Fox at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.
There are plenty of reasons lots and lots of people will hate Traffic Light, and it’s hard to argue against them. The premise—let’s follow various people, connected by friendship, at different stages of their romantic lives—is something that virtually every network has a version of on the air at present. (Seen Better With You? Perfect Couples? Even CBS’ upcoming Mad Love and ABC’s upcoming Happy Endings? Then you’ll have seen something very similar to this show.) The show’s comedy, while not terrible, is not horribly unexpected. Tonight’s often awful pilot drops in a lot of stuff that the show will have no use for ever again. (In some ways, the show Traffic Light is in its second, third, and fourth episodes is an entirely different one from the show it is in the pilot, relying less on flashback gags with tertiary characters who largely disappear in the following episodes.) The show gives off a distinct vibe of been there, done that, and it’s not surprising that so many critics are writing it off as a tired take on a tired sitcom format that needs to just die already.
Well, here’s my advice: Skip tonight’s pilot. It really is as bad as the bad reviews this show has gotten. There are a couple of minor laughs here and there, and the cast is good, but everything is amped up to the utmost degree, and the dialogue all carries with it a whiff of strained exposition. The first five minutes are filled with lines like, “Oh, hey, you remember my friend who is someone I lived with in college, don’t you? Of course you do, because you’re my wife, and we have a kid together.” (It’s never THAT bad, but that’s, sadly, not too much of an exaggeration.) And the final moments—which you’ll see coming from a long ways off—work too hard to explain just why the title of the show is what it is and to make all of this have some deeper meaning.
But after you’ve skipped the pilot, tune in next week and the next and the next, if you happen to like low-key, shambling comedy. This is not a show for people who love hard jokes, jokes that are funny in and of themselves, jokes that can be removed from the show they’re in and still be at least 75 percent as funny as they were in the show. But it is a show filled with minutely observed jokes, little things that drift by in passing and make you smile at how similar they are to something that happened in your own life. It’s kind of like an even more subdued Modern Family, if you can believe it. By the third and fourth episodes, the show’s ensemble, which improvises much of the dialogue from stories and suggested conversation dreamed up by the show’s writing staff, has truly started to gel, and the show is finding its footing. It’s unlikely this will ever be one of the best comedies on TV. It’s too deliberately tiny for that, and it doesn’t seem to have ambition to push beyond its own little niche. But within that niche, it can be very rewarding indeed.
The show centers on three college friends, all of whom played baseball together in their salad days. Lawyer Mike (David Denman, best known as Roy from The Office) is a man obsessed with making sure things are in their right place and everything is in accordance with whatever rules he’s dreamed up in the moment. He’s married to Lisa (the very funny Liza Lapira), a woman constantly bargaining to get Mike to do various things neither member of the couple wants to do, and the two have a toddler son. Just moving in together are Adam (Nelson Franklin) and Callie (Aya Cash), the stereotypical young couple in love, whose couplehood has called all sorts of things both have taken for granted into question. Naturally enough, Adam and Mike have a single friend, Ethan (British actor Kris Marshall), who’s free and easy, unlikely to commit any time soon. Ethan has a dog. That’s pretty much it.
Obviously, you’re thinking that you’ve heard all of that before. And you have! There’s absolutely nothing in this show that hasn’t been done a million times before. But as the episodes roll along (and Fox made a very good call making this many episodes available, since it takes some time to figure out what the show is trying to do), you begin to realize you haven’t seen done in quite this specific way before. Sure, Adam and Callie fight about money, but in a way that reveals something very specific about both of their personalities and just how they might eventually splinter apart. (Or, rather, how they might if this weren’t a low-key sitcom.) Sure, Ethan is a single guy who sleeps with an endless parade of hot chicks, but the show somehow makes him less of a cad and more of a caddish romantic, a guy who believes in love until it starts to get boring after a week or so.
The best thing about Traffic Light, the thing that suggests this show could end up being even better than it seems right now, is the marriage between Mike and Lisa. Sitcom marriages are so often based on the idea that a couple that’s been together a long time eventually devolves into a state of mutual loathing, held together only by tradition and the kids, that it’s refreshing to see two people who are genuinely in love. Denman and Lapira have an easy-going chemistry, and show developers Bob Fisher and David Hemingson (who based the series on an Israeli original that I’m going to guess no television critic in America has ever seen a single episode of) allow them to have conflicts that they fight over while never once suggesting these two are anything but crazy about each other. Instead of a stalemate in a never-ending war, Mike and Lisa have an evolving partnership, one that they’re working out every day, but one that is rewarding for both of them. That shouldn’t feel as revolutionary as it does, but it somehow becomes the single best thing about the show. (Again, this doesn’t really come through in the pilot, where Lisa veers toward being a shrew a few too many times. But it’s thankfully snapped into place as soon as next week’s episode.)
What’s kind of sad is the fact that all of the things that make Traffic Light an interesting show to watch, one that will be worth following in the months to come, are all of the things that will probably make it quick cancellation fodder. People will almost certainly check it out a few times after Raising Hope, wonder where the jokes are, and tune out. The stories, meanwhile, are often just excuses to get the cast in a room together and have them start improvising. But if you watch the show long enough, if you get into its shaggy, unconventional rhythms, it starts to become more and more rewarding. In that regard, the show it reminds me the most of is the similarly low-key, similarly shaggy, similarly underappreciated Sons & Daughters, an ABC show that was canceled in two seconds back in 2006. Like that show, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen millions of times before, yes, but you’ve never seen it done with this level of specificity. It’s shaggy, yes, but it’s also sly and surprisingly funny when you give yourself over to it.
But seriously, skip the pilot. It’s a mess.