Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The breezy new TBS sitcom Ground Floor sometimes seems to have taken its premise from the scene in Titanic where Leonardo DiCaprio takes Kate Winslet down below deck to show her how the lower classes have fun. Ground Floor has less dancing than that sequence—but not by much.
In the pilot, Skylar Astin—trying to perfect a hybrid of Josh Radnor’s character on How I Met Your Mother and Max Greenfield’s line deliveries from New Girl—goes to a work party at the prompting of his friend. Astin plays the kind of workaholic go-getter who’s almost certain to meet an earthy young woman who will help him learn to unwind and have a good time—which is exactly what happens when he runs into Briga Heelan. The two hook up, only to realize that they both work in the same building—he on the upper floors and she on the titular bottom. Can these two crazy kids overcome their class differences in order to have acrobatic sex? Yes.
The premise is the worst thing about Ground Floor, in the grand tradition of shows from co-creator Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town). Lawrence enjoys tinkering with his programs in their early going, until the premise is subsumed by footage of attractive, funny people hanging out and laughing with each other. The exception to that rule is Scrubs, which continued getting juice out of its hospital setting throughout its run. In its lead characters, its style of humor, and its use of John C. McGinley in a supporting mentor/menace role, Ground Floor answers the question, “What would happen if Scrubs were set in an office and didn’t have all those bummer plots about patients dying?”
It’s possible that Lawrence and co-creator Greg Malins are getting bored with Ground Floor’s setup in merely the four episodes TBS distributed to critics. With its “rich people have better stuff, but poor people know how to have fun, man” storylines, Ground Floor feels like it stepped out of some tract about the social classes printed in London between the world wars. Income disparity is high and glaring in the show’s Bay Area tech world, and there are some interesting feints toward considering this idea—like in the fourth episode, when the show suggests Heelan might come to like all this great stuff somewhat. But for the most part, this is all young lovers clog dancing on the Titanic, including some literal dancing (and singing).
But, dammit, Lawrence creates characters that are fun to hang out with. Though nobody on Ground Floor yet rises to the level of the characters on his other shows, at least this new one has already figured out more of its characters than Cougar Town had at a similar point in its run. In particular, the ground floor world Heelan inhabits is a fun setting with some very funny actors, including Rory Scovel, Alexis Knapp, and James Earl. The upstairs world is less immediately compelling, but McGinley often makes these scenes worth it. Even if he’s playing a more immediately supportive riff on his Scrubs character, his staccato line readings are the sort of thing few other actors can pull off with such panache. The show also has fun with the idea of self-contained episodes, introducing continuity errors between episodes that are so blatant they have to be intentional.
The most refreshing thing about Ground Floor is that Lawrence and Malins haven’t bothered altering the humor of a Scrubs or Cougar Town for the multi-camera format. Even though there’s an audience providing laughter, that laughter is prompted by the sorts of silly sight gags, winking sex jokes, and weird word play that have marked Lawrence’s other series. The game of “Marco Post-It”—featuring an ad hoc blindfold of Post-It Notes—would have felt right at home on either earlier series, and the only thing altered about it for multi-camera is the staging. The series doesn’t push too hard for broad humor, and even if that means the audience response is more muted than modern viewers may be used to in the multi-camera setup, that also feels more real. Ground Floor isn’t a screamingly funny show. It’s a pleasant way to get a few light chuckles before bed, a sitcom that doesn’t even bother pretending it’s going to be about anything other than these people hanging out with each other.
Building the perfect hangout sitcom takes more time than four episodes offer. While Ground Floor achieves its deliberately modest aims, it also leaves the viewer wondering if something more might have been accomplished with that premise, particularly with the enjoyable Heelan in the female lead. A show about two people who fall in love and then try to negotiate the class structure that gets in their way could make for a winning romantic sitcom. Ground Floor doesn’t really want to be that, sadly. That’s probably more likely to catch on with a TBS audience accustomed to Big Bang Theory repeats—it’s also too bad.