TV Reviews: 3 Midseason Comedies

3 REV Retired at 35
Courtesy of TV Land

The usually great Jessica Walter stoops to low humor in the TV Land show.

“Perfect Couples” and “Retired at 35” kick off with low ambitions — and “Parks and Recreation” returns to show how comedy should be done.

Comedy is both hard and subjective, which is why writers and producers stumble toward the easy and obvious. If you’re worried that people won’t share your sense of humor, then why not give them something they’ve laughed at before? So it is that two new sitcoms fall prey to such a lack of ambition. But a third, returning series proves that by trying something different and — key ingredient — actually being funny, a quality comedy can be created and sustained.

Perfect Couples
Airdate: 8:30 p.m. Jan. 20 (NBC)

The sitcom Perfect Couples looks like it was made with almost no oversight, just people nodding at what seemed like fine ideas at the time. The first thing viewers will be asking themselves as it unspools: “How do you mess up such a stellar cast?” Later, they’ll realize the writers also forgot to create believable,
likable characters.

The show is about three couples who are not as disparate as the writers want us to believe. There’s Dave (Kyle Bornheimer) and Julia (Christine Woods), the “normal” couple. There’s Vance (David Walton) and Amy (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), the supposedly wild and “passionate” couple. Then there’s Rex (Hayes MacArthur) and Leigh (Olivia Munn), the “perfect” couple.

Munn, a former TV host and Internet sensation — pretty much the epitome of hot, sarcastic and dirty to both the geek world and the college crowd — is cast against type as an uptight, prudish do-gooder. Really? It makes no sense. Casting Ellis (the unattainable, blunt waitress in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as slightly unstable was a good idea that gets ruined when she’s also a ditsy, shallow shopaholic. People, people, people. Watch her work. Give her something of substance.

Most of the pity should be reserved for Bornheimer (Worst Week), a very funny, talented actor, and Woods (FlashForward), who displays grounded appeal and understated comic timing. Not only do they try heroically to make something out of nothing, but they also have a realness you’d actually want to watch — something that is buried by the other two couples spouting unfunny dialogue and flailing desperately to find identity in their characters.

But that’s a lost cause: These are just shtick people, leaving the show nowhere near perfect.

Retired at 35
Airdate: 10:30 p.m. Jan. 19 (TV Land)

The channel believes throwing the sitcom back to its most awful (albeit successful) days of brainless humor, laugh tracks, cookie-cutter characters and then more of the same over and over again is the way to go. (You people who keep watching Hot in Cleveland are to blame.)

Retired’s story is simple. David (Johnathan McClain) is a workaholic who visits his parents (Jessica Walter and George Segal) in Florida and decides to stay to find himself — but actually, it seems, so he can recite or hear every joke about old people ever dreamed up. He’s got an overweight, self-deprecating best friend, Brandon (Josh McDermitt), and a love interest, Jessica (Ryan Michelle Bathe).

Instead of Betty White, viewers get Walter, who can be fantastic in just about anything — like she was in, say, Arrested Development — but leaves that lofty comedic height to spout retorts you can see coming from decades away. She is reduced to painting hot studs on canvas and talking about working very hard to get the genitalia just right. Segal milks old-fogey tech humor, such as telling his son to “stop all that texturizing” when he’s texting and asking him, “Are you on Facial Book?”

Retired at 35 is all about hitting your mark, spewing out a tired line then waiting for the canned laughter to start. Some people like the comfort of familiarity, but others just feel the contempt. Ahem.

Parks and Recreation
Airdate: 9:30 p.m. Jan. 20 (NBC)

Last, there’s one of NBC’s finest and funniest sitcoms, making a midseason return because NBC is NBC, and there’s no room for logic.

The third season begins after cutbacks have left the department decimated for three months. Leslie (Amy Poehler) goes to round up the troops (who have taken odd jobs during the work stoppage) and races them back to the office, only to find that the budget doesn’t really allow them to do anything. So she tries to persuade state auditors Ben (Adam Scott) and Chris (Rob Lowe) to loosen the purse strings. Ben is dubious, but perfect-human Chris comes around with the help of sentimentality and the lure of Ann (Rashida Jones). Lowe’s character is really beginning to jell, and he’s outstanding in the second episode when Pawnee is overrun with the flu. If you’ve never believed Lowe can make you laugh out loud, pay attention to that episode.

During its debut season, Parks took five of its six episodes to get beyond seeming like a less-funny version of The Office. By the sixth episode, the characters were more defined, their quirks and rhythms understood, but the show didn’t exactly arrive until Season 2, with 24 superb episodes, made it the best comeback story on television and a top-tier comedy.

Why? Nuanced characters, superb writing and a willingness to be different in its premise from other formulas.

True, NBC deserves credit for sticking with a show that had dismal ratings and seemed to fail its freshman tryout, but the network proceeded to choke horribly by giving egregiously unfunny Outsourced the fall slot, right when Parks was on a creative roll.

But put your bitterness aside — seriously, one day, NBC will be run like a real network — and bask in the fact that our Pawnee pals have returned, and there are plenty of excellent episodes in store.