When the schedule for the 2013-14 TV season was announced last spring, it was dotted with new comedies from Doozer, the production company fronted by Scrubs and Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence. With that latter series still on the air and Ground Floor, Surviving Jack, and Undateable on deck, Doozer appeared poised to establish a modern-day equivalent to MTM Enterprises’ 1970s sitcom empire—with Enlisted, from Lawrence’s fellow Cougar Town creator Kevin Biegel, in the “Taxi,
as created by MTM alums” position. But this was not to be a Mary Tyler Moore/Bob Newhart/Rhoda power trio: Fox canceled Surviving Jack (along with Enlisted), and NBC begins burning off Undateable on May 29. But it was still a remarkable feat, made all the more remarkable by the fact that the lone survivor of that ’13-’14 development slate is a multi-camera series where the jokes are punctuated by the laughter of a studio audience—a TV medium that looks as out of place in 2014 as Rhoda Morgenstern’s head scarves or the wood paneling in Dr. Bob Hartley’s office might.
Undateable possesses the edge of some of its contemporaries, but it’s more committed to treating its characters like characters, rather than dispensers of insults and punchlines. And sadly, no matter how good they might’ve turned out, neither Ground Floor nor Undateable could restore the reputation of the multi-camera sitcom after years of poor attempts to replicate the sweet-and-sour tone of Everybody Loves Raymond or the inorganically quippy pacing of Will & Grace. Besides, MTM and Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions already have a 21st century successor—unfortunately, it’s the vanity-card-lined kingdom of Chuck Lorre Productions, which keeps CBS swimming in multi-camera series—including the most popular comedy on broadcast TV, The Big Bang Theory. It’s a valiant effort from Lawrence, co-creator Adam Sztykiel, and crew, but Undateable isn’t going to save one of TV’s most storied forms from the spawn of Two And A Half Men.
At least that effort begins in the right place: with the people behind the characters. Undateable is one of the best-cast multi-camera sitcoms in years; recurring player Briga Heelan works the format so well she also booked the female lead in Ground Floor. On Undateable, she’s the unaware waitress for whom bar owner Justin (Brent Morin) holds a torch; when Justin moves in with self-styled ladies’ man Danny (Chis D’Elia), Danny sets about teaching his “baby bird” and friends the ropes of the dating game. That’s an unfortunate premise that too often reduces Justin and crew to the tics and bad habits laid out in the how-to book that inspired Undateable (Over-confidence! Under-confidence! Pockets full of Jolly Ranchers!), but the strengths of the performances transcend those shortcomings. The majority of the cast comes from the stand-up world, so there’s plenty of well-honed stage presence on display, evidenced by Justin’s tendency to break out in song or the wild physicality that Chris D’Elia never got to show off on Whitney. When all else fails, the camera turns to Ron Funches’ Shelly, whose impressive hit-to-miss ratio with soft-spoken non sequiturs makes him the show’s secret weapon.
Undateable is an actor’s sitcom, often eschewing story for patient spotlight moments—like a morning wakeup call in the form of Morin belting some Backstreet Boys. In one of several How I Met Your Mother echoes, Justin’s singing is treated like a joke-on-a-joke, a nuisance to his friends that Morin’s character nonetheless takes tremendous, Ted Mosby-esque pride in. One later episode wrings considerable laughs out of the characters goading one another into speaking in increasingly cartoonish Italian accents, a gag that would fall flat coming from a less game ensemble. It’s rote, this premise of a waggish player (D’Elia) imparting romantic advice on the terminally un-hip, but the energy fostered onstage (and somehow not Hoovered up by the series’ cavernous primary setting) gives the show a fresh jolt on a scene-by-scene basis.
With a pre-production plagued by re-castings—former Disney star Aly Michalka was replaced by Heelan, who was due to be replaced by Megan Park before a scheduling agreement with Ground Floor was worked out—the first few episodes of Undateable are the document of a show still finding its feet. Soon enough, however, the rigid premise of Danny coaching Justin toward a relationship with Heelan’s Nicki falls away, a loosening of constraints that suits the show well. It’s a much better as the looser, goofier platonic love story of the odd-couple roommates played by Morin and D’Elia, which starts to blossom once the latter is no longer communicating with his castmates like he’s a non-peacocking Mystery. By the sixth episode screened for critics, “The Move,” character interaction comes more organically, and scenes in the bar are blocked in a more intimate fashion—without undermining the joke that Justin’s place is barely in the black.
From that perspective, the burn-off works to Undateable’s advantage—even as it seals the series’ fate at NBC. Airing episodes back-to-back smooths out the rough patches, abbreviating the path to solidly funny stuff like “The Move,” which has a solid foundation of character and comedic rhythm beneath bits like the previously mentioned Italian accents and a lengthy tragicomic monologue from Shelly. At best, it reminds sitcom fans that quality work is still being done in multi-camera; at worst, it’s a decent distraction during the hiatus for Heelan’s other show, the final link to a comic dynasty that wasn’t meant to be.