Happily Divorced debuts tonight on TV Land at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
In less than two years, TV Land has gone from a network that shows sitcom reruns to one that shows new sitcoms that look like reruns. That's no accident; in developing original programming, the Nick at Nite offshoot has purposely picked shows that evoked the humor and rhythms of a sitcom era that stretched from the '70s until the early '90s. In doing so, they've quickly developed a TV Land formula of sorts: use ensembles of beloved sitcom stars, liberally sprinkle in guest stars from TV's past, shoot in front of a studio audience, keep the stories light and the jokes coming, and throw in a single-entendre or two to remind viewers that it's 2011 and not 1981.
Because of this formula, it almost seems to be beside the point to say that the pilot for Happily Divorced, Fran Drescher's new sitcom, is terrible. The folks at TV Land aren't going for the next coming of Arrested Development, or even How I Met Your Mother, with their sitcoms. No, Happily Divorced is TV comfort food, plain and simple, and if it can get past it's seemingly rushed and over-hyper pilot, the network's core audience will embrace it.
In Happily Divorced, Drescher plays an LA-based florist named Fran (naturally), who's been married to her loving husband Peter (John Michael Higgins) for decades. The series opens with a bombshell; Peter wakes Fran up in the middle of the night to tell her "I think I'm gay." "But we just had sex during Leno!" Fran yells in Drescher's trademark scratchy Queens drawl. "How gay can you be?!" Peter immediately moves —to the den, as he can't afford his own place—and we pick up on what life is like for the two six months later, with Fran dipping her toe in the dating pool and the two still relating to each other like the old married couple they are. Helping them along the way are Fran's friend Judi (Tichina Arnold), her parents (Rita Moreno and Robert Walden), and her business' delivery guy Cesar (Valente Rodriguez).
The conceit for this show would seem outlandish if it wasn't true; Divorced is based on Drescher's marriage to her now-ex Peter Marc Jacobson, who ended their long-term union when he came out of the closet. As on the show, the two remain friends; in fact, Jacobson, who produced The Nanny along with Drescher, is also Drescher's co-creator on this show. The series is supposed to examine how Fran missed some obvious signs and how she deals with being single at a certain age, even while struggling with the fact that she and her ex will be linked in some way shape or form because of their history. Think about the Sundance reality series Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, except played for broad laughs, and you'll get the idea.
If the show had the emotional resonance that one would think would go with finding out your husband was gay, then Divorced would be much more satisfying. But the combination of TV Land and Drescher has produced a pilot that pretty much glosses over all of it just for the cheap laugh. Peter goes gaga over a picture of Cesar's buff cousin; Fran's mother confuses Fran's new date with Peter's new boyfriend; Fran's date with the new man goes sitcommically wrong. It all goes too fast and furious to get a hold of the story, dissolving from something that could have been funny and poignant to a series of jokes that would have been clunkers on an episode of Too Close For Comfort.
Why, for instance, did Drescher and Jacobson decide to skip forward six months instead of actually explore the ups and downs of Fran and Peter getting used to their new relationship? We could have seen them fight, fall back into old habits, even sleep with each other for old time's sake. But that's likely a sitcom for another network.
However, Divorced can take a cue from the grand dame of TV Land sitcoms, Hot in Cleveland, which returns with new episodes tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern. The show picks up where it left off, with wacky old broad Elka (Betty White) on the lam before her sentencing hearing, having been conviced to stealing a shelter-full of valuables from her husband's mob bosses. Melanie, Joy, and Victoria (Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick) set out to find her and see that she's been hiding amongst Ohio's Amish population, at the farm of an elder named Yoder (guest George Wendt).
As soon as the three ladies step into an Amish tavern, you can almost predict the fish out of water jokes that will come up, including the ladies getting oggled like they're the last women on earth. The laughs in the episode include a near-revelation from the usually-shallow Victoria, a new look for Melanie, and a whole bunch of other jokes that wouldn't have passed muster in any of the other stars' previous sitcoms.
What the writers of Hot in Cleveland seem to forget is that sitcoms of the past had jokes coming fast and furious, but not all the humor came from one-liners. Midway through the show's second season, we're finally seeing some humor come out of the characters' personalities rather than just potshots, and the chemistry between the four leads is undeniable. It's a big reason why Cleveland has gotten so much praise, despite the lame writing; no one's expecting much, and they're pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the show feels on a weekly basis.
That's the type of feeling that Fran Drescher needs to go for on Happily Divorced. Skip the gay jokes and develop the characters. She should get the opportunity to do that on TV Land. Happily Divorced doesn't need to be Seinfeld, but at least it should be at least as good as The Nanny, shouldn't it?