In the US: Tuesdays, 9.30/8.30c, NBC
“You’re not a very good lesbian, are you?” Kelly Brook asks Elisha Cuthbert at one point during the first episode of One Big Happy. It is the first of many points in the show's half hour run that surprisingly, Kelly Brook is Very Right. Unfortunately, the sitcom itself is Very Wrong.
Exec produced by Ellen DeGeneres but written by Liz Feldman (Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Ellen’s Really Big Show), the show flips the sexes of the usual “straight female with gay best friend” premise of most sitcoms and dramedies by giving us the straight Nick Zano (Happy Endings, 2 Broke Girls, 90210) and the gay Elisha Cuthbert (24, Happy Endings), who have been best friends since high school. Promising each other that if they didn’t have kids by the time they were both 30*, they’d have them together, Plan B seems bang on course, bar the babies, until Zano meets Brook in a bar and they fall head over heels in love. However, she’s about to be deported and despite Brook and Cuthbert hating each other at first sight, after a whirlwind romance, Zano and Brook get married in Las Vegas. Except wouldn’t you know it, Cuthbert is pregnant, which means they’re all going to have to find a way of living together.
The show is a mixture of 50% stereotypes, 50% character comedy. Despite usually being deployed in self-depreciation, the stereotypes are tedious and deployed shotgun-like, almost as though the writer isn’t even sure herself why she’s putting them in there.
Brook, for example, has to deploy the obligatory reference to British teeth, but as she has model-perfect teeth, has to talk about that back tooth of hers that isn’t quite straight.
Similarly, Cuthbert’s black brother-in-law offers her a glass of Chardonnay when she’s upset: “Oh my God, I’m talking like a white woman,” he says. What? Just what?
All I can do is marvel at how far programs for generating comedy scripts have come. They’re almost as funny as quite stupid human beings now.
To be fair, though, in contrast, the character comedy is actually reasonably funny in places. However, despite Cuthbert showing she had surprising comedic chops on Happy Endings, she’s woefully miscast in this as the straight-laced lesbian who wants to paint her house battleship grey, and the model-handsome former MTV presenter Zano doesn’t exactly convince as the nerd who’s writing a science fiction novel about robots. The first five or 10 minutes of the episode, when it’s just Zano and Cuthbert failing utterly to convince as lifelong best friends, also fails utterly to raise even the slightest laugh.
Then along comes Brook as the carefree, live wire Brit Prudence, who spends large portions of the first episode parading naked and pixellated in front of the obviously uninterested Cuthbert. And things get better - not the just the Brook being naked part, obviously, since she’s very good at it.
Now on the face of it, this shouldn’t work on two levels - again not the Brook being naked part.
The first level is that the stereotype-laden Feldman can’t expand her horizons even further than one US state to really understand what ‘carefree live wire’ might mean for an Englishwoman so writes her as Californian. Ancient prophecy has it that were a normal English working class woman to ever unironically suggest to anyone that they would benefit from a colonic irrigation, our blessed isle would instantly sink beneath the waves and descend to Avalon, where faerie folk would proceed to collectively tut at us for our desecration of our heritage and all that we hold sacred and pure. Yet Brook is required to do this very thing. One can only presume that King Arthur is pleading our case to them right now and we don’t have long to reach the lifeboats.
The second is that Brook is a terrible actress. She’s been trying to crack the US market for over a decade now, with appearances in everything from the first season of Smallville and the benighted The (Mis)Adventures of Fiona Plum through to Adult Swim’s NTSF:SD:SUV. The result has been she’s almost never been called back for further appearances, because it’s been clear to everyone that even by American TV standards, hers is a vanishingly small acting talent.
However, most of those jobs have required her to play prim and proper Englishwomen. Here, Brook is able to transcend her thespian vacuum simply by being loud and effusive, instead of buttoned-down. The result is that she’s actually quite engaging and even makes you laugh. It seems the old adage that if an English person speaks to foreigners loudly and slowly they’ll understand you really is true.
The problem for the show is that essentially despite saving it from being an absolute disaster, Brook is the only thing holding it up and she also makes everyone around her look dull and uninteresting. You just don’t care about the fussy Cuthbert, the tongue-tied Zano or any of the thinly drawn supporting characters.
The show’s other big problem is that it's nothing but High Concept. What happens next? They’re all going to live together under one roof, the lifelong friends with a baby, one of whom is gay, and the woman they’ve both known for less than a week? One of them’s uptight, one of them believes in colonic irrigation, one of them is… male - and the two women don’t really like one another.
It’s not much is it, beyond going to the doctors, shopping for baby clothes, etc? Is Brook just going to prance about naked while Cuthbert says the word vagina every so often, when the writers realise they’ve got nothing else to work with?
Obviously, we’ll have to wait to see where things go next to be sure, although since we already have NBC’s The New Normal to act as a less congenial template, we can make a few educated guesses - and they're not that enticing. But I can’t imagine One Big Happy really soaring or striking out into exciting new unpioneered comedic territories. But then this is NBC, which is also giving us a second season of Undateable. It’ll probably be the network’s most popular programme within a month.
Still, not only is it half bearable, it features Kelly Brook occasionally being funny, and it’s only six episodes long, so I doubt there’s going to be many padding episodes. So in all the diversity of the diverse new sitcoms we’re getting, this might be one that you’ll tune in to. Assuming you’ve got some ironing to do or something.
* So about seven and three years ago, respectively