When the mockumentary stormed primetime lineups in the 2000s, it did so because it made lying funny again. No longer did sitcom characters have to fib, turn a corner, then reveal the truth; David Brent could make a statement to his co-workers, and then The Office could cut to a talking-head confessional in which he puts the pigheaded lie to that statement. (Or vice versa.) It was a comedy of perception versus fact, a tension ABC’s Manhattan Love Story intensifies by taking the cut-to out of the equation. With its mismatched sweeties (Analeigh Tipton and Jake McDorman) broadcasting their inner monologues, the heads of Manhattan Love Story are always talking.
“I care more about what you think than anyone else I’ve gone out with,” Peter (McDorman) tells Dana (Tipton) in the show’s second episode, and we know that’s true because Manhattan Love Story cares the most about what Peter and Dana are thinking. “This sounded so much better in my head walking over here,” he says a short while later, and that’s harder to believe, because the show’s use of voice-over is the most intrusive gimmick in a fall season choked with high-concept rom-sitcoms.
But it’s arguably the one thing distinguishing Manhattan Love Story from a dozen other zany tales of romance in the city: Dana’s the new girl from Atlanta trying to make her way among the Gotham literati; Peter’s the smooth operator with perpetual bedhead. She’s bad with mobile technology and loves books; he runs a trophy company with his dad (Kurt Fuller), his foppish dude-bro brother (Nicolas Wright), and a moral compass of a sister (Chloe Wepper). Their first date is so prototypically disastrous—an embarrassing mirror check, thinly veiled ogling, tears—that Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler’s They Came Together characters may as well be seated one table over.
And yet it’s hard to process even these cookie-cutter details when the show insists on inflating a thought balloon during every silence between Tipton and McDorman. To be fair, this is already dialed back in the show’s second episode, and Manhattan Love Story shows a commitment to sticking with Peter and Dana’s headspaces. In introducing the inner monologues, it’s as if creator Jeff Lowell and his team sought to maximize the show’s joke-telling space, but what they’re actually doing is restricting performance. Whenever the voice-over resurfaces, Tipton and/or McDorman are forced to pull faces or seek another form of silent expression. Shooting for the pilot must have looked like a high-price game of charades.
Fortunately, the show has found two highly expressive leads in McDorman and Tipton, the latter of whom flexes the smizing muscles honed during her finalist run on America’s Next Top Model. Their presence and spark are the best things Manhattan Love Story has going for it, a reason to root for these crazy kids no matter what priggish or regressive thoughts are being put in their heads. (The pilot’s cold open introduces Peter as he notes which random women on the street he would bang, then hops to Dana, who’s feeling similarly lusty—for handbags.) Taking the campus rake he played on Greek and giving him a little post-grad scruff, McDorman makes the perfect self-serious-but-aloof target for the winsome, teasing attitude Tipton strikes in the pair’s one-on-one scenes.
The further Manhattan Love Story gets from that egregious cold open, the more it feels like a soon-to-be discarded proof-of-concept for the show’s big voice-over stunt. (Not that that’ll help win back viewers who tune out after Peter’s mind purrs “Mrs. Robinson” lyrics at an older passerby.) If there’s hope for the show beyond its leads, it’s in the stylistic flourishes that pop up too infrequently in the first two episodes: An inspired blocking of McDorman and Tipton here, a well-chosen New York location there. In the lead-up to the series, Lowell cited the subtitled balcony scene from Annie Hall as a precursor to the thinking out loud in Manhattan Love Story, and there are signs that this Manhattan Love Story could wind up using its setting as expertly and elegantly as Woody Allen’s best tales of love and loss in The Big Apple. But even Alvy Singer—who was addressing cameras directly before David Brent ever made his first faux pas—would have to agree: Dana and Peter could stand to get out of their heads more often.