Better With You debuts tonight on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Better With You wins the best new comedy series award in a weak season for new comedy series entirely by default. It is not clever at a conceptual level. It contains no laugh out loud lines and only a few "that was pretty good, so here's a smile" lines. The characters are broad types, from the tightly wound older sister to the freewheeling younger sister, from the dumb slacker guy to the uptight older guy everyone jokes about being gay behind his back. And rounding out the ensemble are two parents who just can't get with it and want their little girls to get married and have babies. Saying this is the best new comedy of the season is not really a compliment to it but, rather, a slam against those other comedies. After a season where Modern Family and Community brought the TV comedy roaring back to life, after Parks and Recreation turned out the best small-town sitcom season since the glory days of Newhart, after Glee was uneven but at least something new, this is the best the networks can do? A warmed-over Friends clone with problems only affluent white people have? Sheesh.
Better With You has two weapons every other sitcom this season doesn't have: It has a great cast that makes even the sloppier lines seem funnier than they are (though, to be fair, Mike & Molly has this as well), and it's abundantly clear at all times that the writers on the show don't hate these characters and, indeed, find them kind of fun to hang out with. The cast is the best place to start because while it sets this show apart, it's also sort of depressing. The show is built around Joanna Garcia as Mia and Jennifer Finnigan as Maddie, the aforementioned sisters. Maddie's the older one. She's been in a relationship for nine years with boyfriend Ben (Josh Cooke) and never gotten married, constantly defending it as a "valid lifestyle choice" (the final punchline to this gag is the episode's funniest moment). Mia is the sweet, bubbly younger sister who seems to find success and excitement everywhere she looks. And now she's been seeing Casey (Jake Lacy) for just over seven weeks … and he's about to propose.
Now, most of this is filled with gags that were old when I Love Lucy was around. The pilot may as well boil down to gags that say, "People who are in new relationships act like this, and people who are in older relationships act like this!" Would you believe that Mia and Casey have a much higher sex drive than Maddie and Ben? If that sort of thing strikes you as a surprise, then this show might be one for you. You also probably somehow missed the onslaught of Friends copycats that killed the multi-camera sitcom genre, but that's OK. We've all slept through a decade or two. The show then has the bright idea to toss in Maddie and Mia's parents, played by sitcom veterans Kurt Fuller and Debra Jo Rupp, but all it tosses them are lame gags about how being married for a long time creates a cold, slightly combative environment.
If you've been paying attention to those actors' names, you've realized that this is a crackerjack cast to toss at weak material. There are points where some of the jokes come close to landing just because they're in the mouths of these actors. Only Lacy seems a little lost at times, and that could just be because the character he has to play is essentially the Second Coming of Joey Tribbiani, as was foretold in the Friends series finale. Fuller and Rupp, of course, are such pros that when they see an ailing punchline, they gallop across the landscape to seize it and shake it around until they can give it a little life, but that undersells the skills of Garcia and Finnigan, two should-be TV stars who have been wandering from bombed-out TV series to bombed-out TV series over the past few years. Garcia, in particular, is always so much better than her material, so goofy and winning, that it almost seems a shame to have her land in another series where that's the case. Cooke is also very good, essentially playing, well, Chandler Bing, but finding new notes in that portrayal.
The best scene in the pilot is a late-in-episode scene where a bunch of comic time bombs set up in the script by creator Shana Goldberg-Meehan (a Friends vet, no surprise). Here, a bunch of advice Ben has given to Casey rears its ugly head, the parents finally learn of Mia and Casey's relationship, and all of the secrets the characters have been keeping come out. The scene is not particularly interesting from a plotting point of view. Virtually every comic reversal will be easily predicted by anyone who's ever seen a sitcom before, and the jokes mostly fall into fairly predictable rhythms where they sound like jokes but aren't actually funny. But because the cast is all gathered in one room and bouncing off of each other, it gives the sense that, hey, there might be a show here. These actors are all really good together, and the writers find them fine and funny people to hang out with, even if the gags aren't there just yet.
One thing holding Better With You back is the fact that it's filmed in the hybrid multi-camera/single-camera format that How I Met Your Mother popularized a few seasons back, a format that seems like it should combine the best features of both formats but somehow usually ends up sapping out the best things about both of them, outside of Mother, where the cast is so used to doing all of this after five seasons that the ungainly and awkward pauses of the first few episodes are no longer present. Theoretically, a multi-camera/single-camera hybrid should allow a series to combine some of the ambitious storytelling and fast paced gags of a single-camera comedy with the theatrical atmosphere of a multi-camera sitcom, but in practice, this usually ends up making everything feel sluggish. The actors, filming on sets without an audience, mug for laughter they don't necessarily know will be coming, and the audience, watching a finalized cut of the show on a soundstage weeks later, laughs uncomfortably, uncertain of whether they'll be stepping on lines or not. Back when Mother came up with this hybrid format, some writers hoped it would be the future of TV comedy. Instead, it seems like a dead end.
Despite the only modest praise Better With You deserves, it's probably worth checking out, particularly if you can get past the datedness of the premise to see the genius of the cast. More than any other TV format, the comedy is a duet between the writers and the actors, where having really good writers can push mediocre actors to greater heights and vice versa. In the best case scenario, both groups start out pretty good and then push each other to genius. But in some cases, one half of the equation being good enough can save all involved. This pilot is not terribly fit to lead in to Modern Family and Cougar Town, but there's definitely a show in here somewhere. One can only hope that Goldberg-Meehan and her writers realize that, shit, these jokes are going to be said by actors at the level of Garcia and Cooke and push just a little harder for better writing, sharper gags. And if they don't, they'll just have yet another failed comedy about pretty people with prosaic problems that vanishes into history.