Accidentally on Purpose debuts at 8:30 p.m. EDT tonight on CBS.

Hey, do you like Jenna Elfman? Do you like her a lot? Because CBS has the latest in its series of attempts to win you over to their side via her new starring vehicle, Accidentally on Purpose, or the “Why did they have to break up the Big Bang Theory/How I Met Your Mother hour? I really liked that hour!” show. All in all, it’s yet another excuse for Elfman to go in for a lot of mugging and overselling of jokes in an attempt to keep things afloat. Accidentally on Purpose actually might be a good show at some point in the unspecified future, but you don’t really get a sense of that in the pilot, which just tries to do way too much and turns Elfman loose to try to save whatever she can. Unfortunately, it’s not very much.

Accidentally on Purpose, which is based on this book, is all about a film critic rapidly approaching 40 who’s just getting out of a relationship with a non-committal guy. She hooks up with a twentysomething at the bar, which leads to a series of flings, which leads to a baby (apparently, she says, condoms aren’t 100 percent effective when they’re in your purse – one of the few lines that wasn’t trying too hard). So, of course, she decides to keep the baby and the guy decides to move in with her to help care for her and the child. And all of his slacker friends come along to hang out and make her life a living hell. It’s all pretty much sitcom 101.

All of the above would be more than enough for a pilot, right? But Accidentally on Purpose tries to crowd a bunch of other stuff in there as well, rather than taking any opportunities to breathe and let the characters just interact. Everyone on the show is so wrapped up in the plot machinations of getting Billie pregnant and then getting her into her unlikely living situation and then tossing some artificial conflicts into that living situation that this all flies by without enough of the emotional warmth that’s going to sell a series like this. Comparatively, look at the pilot for the series Accidentally shares an hour with, How I Met Your Mother. It’s not a perfect pilot, but it does very little beyond setting up the characters and showing us their dynamics (perhaps confident in the thought that its final twist would sell the show). By comparison, Accidentally on Purpose is like a three-ring circus with Elfman as the frantically mugging ringmaster.

Elfman has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with your modern day goofy sitcom girls, but back when Dharma & Greg debuted, she was a breath of fresh air, just effortlessly finding all of the fun stuff in the scripts. Then, of course, the show started to push her further and further, and she became the irritatingly mugging person we know today, but for the first 10 episodes of Dharma & Greg or so, she legitimately seemed like she might be the next big thing. Networks keep trying to recapture some of that sense when they cast her in projects, but they’re always writing to her perceived strengths. It might be better to push farther away from those and make Elfman the straight woman, something that Accidentally tries to do from time to time but never consistently enough to really revise Elfman’s persona.

It also doesn’t help that Elfman probably feels she needs to push harder and harder to make the show work. The jokes here just aren’t very funny in any way, shape or form, mostly because they need to get out of the way of the rampaging plot. Any joke that might land isn’t given the room to breathe that it needs because the show is on its way to a destination and needs to get there. There’s nothing wrong with doing a purely premise pilot, though it’s often very hard to do anything original with one, but if you’re going to do one, you should commit to the bit, as they say. By trying to shove together a premise pilot AND what a “normal” episode of the show would look like, the series accomplishes neither. Time was that the pilot was solely for setting up the premise and episode two was for setting up what a normal episode of the show would look like. Now, the rush to do both has led to a decrease in premise pilots but also an increase in premise pilots that clumsily add on some additional story for no apparent reason.

To tell you the truth, I want to like this show. I like traditional, multi-camera sitcoms, and I like half the CBS comedy bloc. I even find Two and a Half Men tolerable much of the time. I think there are a lot of things that more stage-y, multi-camera comedies can do that no other filmed medium is really quite capable of, and I’m interested to see if current ideas of how TV shows should work and run can blend with their very old-fashioned rhythms. I wish there were more television comedies with female leads, especially female leads out of their 20s, and Elfman is very committed to selling whatever she can. I like much of the cast, especially Ashley Jensen (late of Extras and Ugly Betty) as Billie’s friend, Olivia, who’s sort of trying to be the Barney Stinson of the show (though not as sexually successful). Hell, Larry Wilmore even turns up for a little while, and that was enough to make me predisposed to like it.

But Accidentally on Purpose just tries way too hard at every turn, to the point where I’m having trouble thinking of things to recommend about it beyond things I think could get better in the future. As it currently stands, there’s not really very much in Accidentally on Purpose that sticks it. CBS has probably had the most quietly consistent comedy development of the last few years, but with this series, they’ve brought to the air a boring, unfunny mess of a show.

Grade: D

Stray observations:

  • The following is a list of good CBS comedy pilots you could watch tonight in this timeslot instead of this: I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, M*A*S*H, Newhart, Murphy Brown (kind of a dud series but an awesome pilot), Designing Women, Everybody Loves Raymond, How I Met Your Mother. And that’s just shows I thought had pretty good pilots.
  • A hypothesis: The laugh track is only annoying when the jokes it is busting up at are not very funny.
  • It's rare that I talk myself into a lower score while writing one of these, but I started this out intending to go C- and gradually realized just how little I liked this.

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