Watching a pilot episode is like being proposed to at the end of a first date. The relationship is barely a half-hour old, and yet the show’s already asking to start a season pass together, and it’s oh so keen to introduce you to all of these people it knows. The genuine keepers, the ones worth this snap devotion, are rare; more common are the overeager pilots that merit a “No, but thanks for the lovely evening.”
And then there are shows like Marry Me, which are a lot like the events depicted within Marry Me. Similar to the difficult path to the chapel laid out for Casey Wilson and Ken Marino, it’ll take more than one try for Marry Me’s proposal to stick. There’s so much to like about the premiere episode, the latest TV effort from Happy Endings creator David Caspe: Wilson and Marino, for instance, who’ve shined in past ensemble roles, now get to star in the long-term romance between high-strung Annie and somewhat-less-high-strung Jake. But the episode gets so hung up on pilot concerns—exposition and flashbacks and character introductions—that a hesitation to commit is understandable.
A six-year courtship is a lot to pack into 22 minutes of a single-camera sitcom, and to Marry Me’s credit, its priorities are primarily in the present. Caspe’s script finds an ingenious workaround that burns through most of the required background information: Jake’s first, aborted marriage proposal, a madcap showcase for the type of histrionic fireworks Wilson regularly let off on Happy Endings. Most of this season’s comedy pilots come with big showcase sequences—Selfie managed to squeeze two from flimsy barf bags and a Lady Gaga cover—and the opening minutes of Marry Me shine a big, bright spotlight on the leads. (While establishing the state of their relationship, it’s also a convenient place for laying out Annie’s true feelings about various supporting characters.) Any calls to the plausibility police prompted by the cold open should be dismissed as false alarms: Annie’s refusal to turn around and berate Jake to his face is pure comedic tension.
But plausibility is a secondary concern here; the speed and consistency with which these people divine snappy comebacks is proof enough of that. The show wants so badly to get to those comebacks (and killer punchlines, and unexpected cultural allusions) but the constraints of the comedy pilot won’t let it. There must be conversations and apologies to those insulted family members and friends (among them: Tim Meadows, Tymberlee Hill, Sarah Wright, and John Gemberling). They’re reiterations of what first drew Jake and Annie together and how the central couple is different from Gil (Gemberling) and his ex-wife or Jake’s mom (JoBeth Williams) and her late husband. Marry Me opens with an epic self-destruct sequence, but that requires the remainder of the premiere to handle damage control. With any luck, that’s not a trend in subsequent episodes.
It’s a lot of plot to sift through, particularly for a series descended from one of the best joke-telling sitcoms of the past decade. The Happy Endings overtones go beyond the presences of Marry Me’s married showrunner and female lead: The funny-comes-first fingerprints of Caspe and Wilson’s previous show are all over their new one, evidenced by Annie’s Year Of Penny zeal and the pinpoint accuracy of the laugh lines. (Jake earns the biggest guffaw of the fall with a space-shuttle-related faux pas late in the pilot.) Those traits make it a perfect match for Marino, the State alumnus who’s carved out a niche in wilder cable fare like Eastbound & Down, Childrens Hospital, and Party Down. Marry Me is the first network comedy that knows what to do with his style of comic exasperation, and he and Wilson click so immediately that they’d be easily misidentified as the show’s offscreen couple.
Such easy chemistry early on is a positive sign for the show’s future, as is the approach of the supporting cast, which gamely attacks the small amount of material it’s given in the pilot. Marital bliss is on the horizon for Jake and Annie, but it can’t be Marry Me’s ultimate destination; a richer show about a whole group of people, two of whom happen to be engaged, is poised to blossom from this pilot. As with the promises Jake and Annie make to each other, the worth of pledging yourself to Marry Me will be determined by how entertaining the journey toward (and the journey after) that wedding will be.
Reviews by Molly Eichel will appear weekly.