The central failing of NBC’s Friends with Benefits is evident from the first thirty seconds of the pilot.
We open on a post-coital conversation between Ben and Sara, two attractive twenty-somethings played by Ryan Hansen (Party Down, Veronica Mars) and Danneel Ackles (One Tree Hill), in which it is revealed that they are participating in that age-old tradition of friends who have casual sex.
There are a number of things wrong with the scene as a whole. Not only are the jokes flat and dull (Example: “His name is rich and he made you pay for the check? Fail.”), but the way the scene is used as exposition has this awful precociousness to it. They want to establish that they’re just friends, so Sara talks ever so casually about the date she had that night, and there’s no subtlety as both characters lay out their reasons for why they never found a steady partner (he’s too picky, she’s too busy).
And yet, it is really in those first thirty seconds that the show makes a fatal mistake. The biggest problem with Friends with Benefits isn’t that it’s not very funny (although that is true), or that it feels particularly reductive after two movies built around the same basic idea have been released in the last six months or so (also true); instead, it fails because of where it chooses to join this story.
Any logical person would start this story in the beginning. We’d meet Ben and Sara when they were just two single friends struggling to find their place in love and life, friends who hang out with other friends and who talk about normal things that friends talk about. Then there would be that moment where a friendship turns into something more, the moment when one evening of unbridled passion changes the group dynamic forever.
I am not arguing that this would be a particularly inventive premise, and when I write it out it sounds hopelessly lame. However, that would actually be a show. There would be a dynamic that is being changed, and we would have an understanding of how characters are responding to the situation and how that differs from their previous behavior.
Creators Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber - who wrote (500) Days of Summer, which I’ll get to in a second - laugh in the face of this logic. It doesn’t matter what Ben and Sara were like before, nor does it even really matter why they started sleeping together: When Ben eventually tells his best friend Aaron about their arrangement, the story is truly no more complicated than “it just sort of happened.” All we apparently need to know is that two pretty people who aren’t in a relationship are having sex: cut, print, and you have NBC’s next hit sitcom.
In truth, of course, you have the latest entry into NBC’s Summer Burnoff Theater, the second after anthology series Love Bites (which I reviewed back in June). However, this late in the summer, I think we need to find another term to describe just how buried this show is. While Love Bites debuted on a Thursday night a stone’s throw away from the end of the season (when people are still used to new episodes of their favorite shows), Friends with Benefits debuts on a Friday night at the beginning of August. While NBC sent out no screeners for either show, they scheduled Friends with Benefits during the Television Critics’ Association press tour, ensuring that critics would have neither the time nor the energy to cover the premiere. NBC seemed to at least pretend that it had always intended on Love Bites to launch as a summer guilty pleasure (even though a quick glance at the show’s history showed otherwise), but there is no pretending here: Friends with Benefits is getting buried.
It’s a deserved fate, as Neustadter and Weber failed to establish any of the necessary characteristics of a successful sitcom in the pilot. The group of friends - which includes Ben, Sara, Aaron, token black friend Fitz, and bartender Riley - hang out at a local bar, but we never learn why they’re friends: There’s no sense of how they met, and there’s no evidence that they’re particularly close. We learn what characters do, if we learn what characters do, through expository dialogue that never stops to ask if these people would say those things at this point in their friendship. We learn the show is set in Chicago, but nothing they do feels like it’s in anything but a generic location. The comedy, meanwhile, struggles mightily: It’s one thing if a group of friends makes inside jokes about the Spin Doctors, for example, but a throwaway joke about how lame they are is just, well, lame.
However, there are bits and pieces in there that could have technically worked. The pilot is way too focused on categorizing its characters based on their approach to relationships, but there’s an interesting parallel that it creates. While Ben is allergic to commitment (like so many men in these situations), Aaron is addicted to it, using his financial fortune to give women everything they ever desired. The pilot bends over backwards to make the point that Aaron needs to be a bit less romantic by having his girlfriend break up with him to be with someone who calls her a bitch more often (it’s as stupid as it sounds), but it leads Aaron to hook up with Riley, thus positioning the show to be about TWO sets of friends with benefits. For a moment, it seemed like the show was creating a real origin story, building two competing situations that could compare and contrast the value of this particular relationship strategy.
It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to be curious what would come in the second episode. The pilot made it clear that Neustadter and Weber aren’t television writers, failing to lay the groundwork for a successful sitcom, but this is the kind of formula that can be rescued. The show shares an alarming number of similarities with ABC’s midseason Happy Endings, for example, which evolved quite a bit from its pilot to the point where it was really quite charming at the end of its first season (and got renewed as a result). No, Happy Endings was never this much of a mess and had a much superior cast, but I find Ryan Hansen to be great at playing douchebags capable of being likeable, and Zach Cregger (who plays Aaron) and Jessica Lucas (who plays Riley) are not terrible in the pilot. I wouldn’t quite say it’s enough to make NBC’s decision to pick up the pilot seem logical, as I’m still a bit perplexed, but I think there’s enough here that hiring an experienced showrunner could have resulted in something watchable.
The episode that followed, “The Benefits of the Mute Button,” indicated that this was not the case. The showrunner in question turned out to be Claudia Lonow, whose latest credit was CBS’ short-lived Accidentally on Purpose. Unwilling to throw out the mess that was left for her, Lonow just sort of goes along for the ride. Fitz, who was given no character definition beyond “womanizer who likes to have sex” in the premiere, gets no further character definition besides actually being shown womanizing (which the pilot never bothered with). Instead of building a story for Aaron and Riley that demonstrates their different approaches to relationships, Lonow creates a humorless misunderstanding that gives Riley a chance to talk about that difference without giving the characters any chance to explore their chemistry. While the Ben and Sara story is simple and logical, as their relationship gets in the way of their attempts to pursue other partners, Danneel Ackles’ performance suddenly becomes intolerably broad to the point where Sara seems like a completely different character on an entirely different show.
The biggest problem, however, is that we don’t learn anything new. We still have no idea what Ben’s character does for a living, and his identity is still defined solely by his sex life and the state of his apartment (which includes a giant poster of the cover of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for some reason). Sara’s neuroses might be dialed up to 11, but they’re no more complex or interesting than they were in the pilot. The show moved forward with its storylines, sure, but the net result of that endeavor was an absence of laughter and a lack of any greater knowledge of these characters or their situation. Instead of taking a step back and throwing in some flashbacks to flesh things out, Lonow just doubles down on the poorly executed premise and hopes for the best.
Jaime Weinman, a fellow critic who writes about TV for MacLean’s magazine, is a strong proponent of the value of the multi-camera sitcom. One of his arguments is that there are a number of single-camera shows that might actually benefit from being multi-camera, as it would better suit the rhythms the show is going for and the talent involved. I’m not always convinced that he’s right about his specific examples (like, for instance, Cougar Town), but I think he raises an important point. While it is more evident in Lonow’s episode, there are parts of both episodes that feel like they’d be a logical fit for multi-camera, but NBC wasn’t ordering multi-camera pilots last year. They were ordering single-camera pilots, and Friends with Benefits became a single-camera project.
If the decision to start the show in medias res is the central failing of Friends with Benefits, the peripheral failings begin with the decision to shoot this as a single-camera show. I’m not going to suggest that I would like the show more if it were multi-camera, as my issues with the thin characters and poorly-designed premise would still stand, but within multi-camera the show could have found some sense of purpose. The broad comic elements could have been explored without feeling so awkward, audience feedback could have been used to improve the show’s rhythms, and the lack of a sense of place could have seemed like a consequence instead of an oversight. Multi-camera shows face a different set of standards, and I’d argue they’re more in line with what Friends with Benefits seems interested in exploring regardless of whether you consider those standards to be lower than with single-camera series (as I know many of you might argue). Plus, given that they hired Lonow (whose recent experience is in the multi-camera format), why not commit to the change and go for it?
It’s sort of tough to discuss standards given that the show is being buried in this fashion; obviously, any expectations we might have about the show are framed by the knowledge that NBC wants absolutely nothing to do with it. However, even within the show they make the mistake of grasping at things they fail to achieve. In the second episode, Fitz complains that Aaron attempting to date Riley threatens the “delicate ecosystem of their social life,” an ecosystem that the show never bothered to establish beyond putting the five characters in a bar together. And, as the pilot comes to its conclusion, Ben gives the following voiceover narration over a montage of events from the episode:
“You know, all friendships have benefits. They can make you laugh. You can tell them anything. Sometimes they’ll do stuff for you that you don’t want to do, and sometimes they’ll do stuff to you you very much want them to do. But I have to say, the biggest benefit of all is that when you have a problem you can’t solve alone, you realize you’re not.”
Besides the fact that there’s a central noun/pronoun agreement issue at the heart of this speech (you can tell friendships anything?), the bigger issue is that nothing in the pilot earns the kind of resonance that this gestures towards. This never becomes a show about friendship; heck, this never becomes a show about anything. Even the (many) bad sitcoms arriving this fall feel as though they have dialed in on an idea, as bad as some of those ideas might be. In the case of Friends with Benefits, the characters are too thin for it to be about friends and the situation is too simple to be about benefits, leaving us to ponder what it was that NBC saw which convinced them that this was a show worth ordering twelve episodes of.
As it stands, the only question answered by the show itself is why NBC regretted that decision almost immediately.
- There was a moment early in the episode where the bartender shows up in a bee costume, and she explains she’s dating a congressman. I presumed this to be some sort of joke, but then we later cut to her having sex with a pollen fetishist congressman. I feel like they thought this was particularly clever and/or funny, but I’m still puzzled at their decision to play that one straight.
- I really like Ryan Hansen, but I think character bleed only added to the character’s odd positioning here. He’s sort of dull (which Hansen has played a lot in the past), and he’s kind of superficial (again, something Hansen has done well), but the show wants him to be a likeable male lead at the same time and gives us nothing else to go on. It ends up feeling like Hansen was miscast, as he never feels like a “leading man” in the way the show intends.
- Not sure if the show planned on making it a ‘thing,’ but both episodes featured montages of the characters preparing for a night out in the mirror for some reason.
- The pilot does that writerly thing where they use chyrons to tell us on what day things are happening, despite the fact that the timeline is pretty irrelevant. I recently watched the pilot of St. Elsewhere, which did the same thing, but there it was to highlight the amount of time spent in the hospital AND tied into a story element where new clocks were donated to the hospital. This was just unnecessary.
- A consequence of Summer Burnoff Theater: a vuvuzela joke in the summer of 2011 (although, really, that would have been way out of date even last fall).
- I quite liked (500) Days of Summer, but I’ll admit that I turned against the script based on its vomit-inducing final line. This has further soured me on Neustadter and Weber, to be honest, although I’d be curious to know how involved they were beyond the initial script (in regards to casting, tone, etc.).