The word “friends” hangs heavy over Friends With Better Lives—as in the title of the Must See TV staple in which six young New Yorkers pledged that they’d always be there for one another. The new CBS sitcom was created by former Friends producer Dana Klein; both shows boast pilots directed by TV legend James Burrows; both shows even have the same number of cast members in their main ensembles. Of course, nearly two decades have passed since Rachel Green fled her wedding to Barry Farber, and those 20 years have changed the multi-camera sitcom drastically. Friends With Better Lives grounds itself in the emotional truth of characters living lives they didn’t expect or plan—and like the Friends pilot, wedding anxiety abounds. Unlike the Friends pilot, however, one of Friends With Better Lives’ big sight gags hinges on a character wearing a breast pump around the house.
Like too many modern comedy pilots, Friends With Better Lives is a show at odds with itself. That title’s also something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: It applies to the way each of the principals looks at the others, but it’s particularly damning to the couple at the series’ center. As the married-with-children Bobby and Andi Lutz, Kevin Connolly and Majandra Delfino gives Friends With Better Lives its boring, contented perspective characters—but they’re too boring to anchor the ensemble. They’re here to be exasperated by the moping of divorcé Will (James Van Der Beek) and the superficiality of social-networking magnate Kate (Zoe Lister Jones), but Connolly—the Entourage vet and Michael J. Fox’s non-union American equivalent—can’t get past his character’s basic exhaustion. The more entertaining, more fun version of Friends With Better Lives would focus on Van Der Beek and Lister Jones, but they need the Connolly and Delfino characters to ground their antics. It’s a catch-22 that blunts the pilot’s sense of humor, as the broadness requiring Connolly and Delfino’s reactions bulldozes the sentiment behind Van Der Beek and Lister Jones’ absurdity.
This wants to be a show addressing the growing pains of middle age; it is the show that gets Brooklyn Decker in her underwear at the top of the second act. Not that cheesecake is surprising in the middle of a bawdy relationship comedy—it’s just that Decker displays genuine comedic chops in the premiere, so it’s disappointing to watch her so readily reduced to SFW eye candy. It speaks to one of the stranger layers of Friends With Benefits, in which the show plays like an intercepted broadcast from the Idiocracy universe, where anyone on TV is cut and chiseled and talking about testicular trauma. Whenever Decker, Van Der Beek, or Rick Donald (playing opposite Decker as her hippie-dippy love interest) are in the same frame together, it’s like the casting department didn’t even factor comedic talent into the equation—they just saw potential Maxim spreads and jawlines that could slice through granite. At times, Friends With Better Lives is like watching statues of Greek gods trying to make comedy out of very human foibles, and it’s incredibly off-putting.
At least James Burrows is still James Burrows, and his directorial expertise keeps things moving quick enough that the otherworldliness of the Decker-Donald romance never lingers. That direction livens up staid restaurant and living-room set pieces with the tiniest nudge of the camera, inviting viewers across the threshold of the soundstage. When Van Der Beek is allowed to ham it up in the environments Burrows creates, he thrives; Lister Jones similarly draws upon the energy of the multi-camera setup, providing a frazzled edge to Kate’s entrepreneurial ruthlessness. After respectively stealing scenes on a very good single-camera sitcom and a mediocre live-audience one, both actors come ready to play in the ensemble setup, and that’ll be a huge factor in Friends With Better Lives’ ability to improve on a so-so pilot.
But there’s already a shadow cast across the show’s future. Despite a plum premiere spot behind the guaranteed Nielsen blockbuster of the How I Met Your Mother finale, Friends With Better Lives is practically doomed to a brief existence by the recent mass renewal of CBS’ existing programming slate. With a confidence projected through most of its characters and a handful of entertaining performances, there’s a slight temptation to see what sort of paces Friends With Better Lives puts these people through in future episodes. But given its grim prospects for renewal and the disconnect between what it wants to be and what it is, it might not be worth it to be there for Friends With Better Lives.