Give or take a summer burnoff of NBC’s “Friends With Benefits,” “Happy Endings” will be the last of the spate of ensemble relationship comedies to premiere this season.
We’d like to say ABC saved the best for last. But really, the show is no better or worse than “Perfect Couples,” “Mad Love” or “Traffic Light.” Which is to say it’s populated with likable actors and rarely out-and-out bad, but it’s also never much more than mildly amusing. It’s the kind of show where jokes are more likely to elicit a response of “Hmm — that’s funny” than an actual laugh.
That’s a bit of a shame, because “Happy Endings” actually may have the most promising setup of the lot: Alex (Elisha Cuthbert, “24”) and Dave (Zachary Knighton, “FlashForward”) have been together forever, but on their wedding day, her percolating second thoughts burst forth and she leaves him at the altar. They and their closest friends then try to figure out how to keep their group together.
Not bad, right? Except that by the end of Wednesday’s (April 13) series premiere (the first of two episodes airing that night), Dave and Alex have decided, Hey, our feelings are still raw, but we’re not really going to explore that and instead will make a go of being around each other for the sake of the group. After that? The occasional “He/she’s dating/up to who/what?” aside, they’re just two of six friends who have the kind of TV friendships that are built on putdowns and in-jokes.
The others in Dave and Alex’s circle are Alex’s sister Jane (Eliza Coupe, “Scrubs”) and her husband, Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.), a more-or-less stable married couple; Max (Adam Pally), a sports-loving, pot-stirring gay guy; and Penny (“Saturday Night Live” alum Casey Wilson), the kind of desperately single woman who fakes being Jewish to meet guys on JDate and pretends to be turning 26 to impress a guy when she’s actually turning 30. Those are both things that happen in the series premiere.
Wilson’s character becomes (somewhat) less of a rom-com cliche in later episodes, and she and her castmates do have their moments. There’s an amusing meta-joke about Cuthbert’s time on “24” in Wednesday’s second episode, and Coupe and Pally are both appealingly acerbic.
But there’s a seen-it-before feeling that permeates “Happy Endings,” and not just because several similar shows have already debuted (none of them very successfully) this season. Several of the plots in the first four episodes — Dave unwittingly turns one-night stand into a serious relationship! Max still hasn’t come out to his parents, so he asks one of the women to pose as his girlfriend! Jane and Brad’s new couple friends turn out to be weird! — have been done again and again and again in the past, and aside from the lack of a laugh track this time around, there’s not much new here.
In that way “Happy Endings” is very much like its Perfect-Mad-Traffic brethren. Freshening up old sitcom formats can work very well — just look at “Modern Family” — but the glut of friends-in-various-relationship-stages comedies this season haven’t managed to crack the code. They all clearly owe a big debt to “Friends,” but simply removing the live audience and changing the rhythm of the writing doesn’t make for a successful update. There’s some alchemy involved, to be sure, but well-drawn characters and a dose of heart certainly help.”Happy Endings” and its 2010-11 cohorts don’t really have it.
“Happy Endings” premieres at 9:30 p.m. ET Wednesday on ABC with back-to-back episodes. Subsequent episodes will air at 10 p.m. Wednesdays.