In the US: Wednesdays, 8.30/7.30c, ABC
In the UK: Not yet acquired
If you needed proof that a laughter track – or at least a “live studio audience” – will kill 99% of all known US comedies dead, here’s Better With You to come up and smack you in your face and tell you to “wake up and smell the coffee”.
It’s the kind of show that deals in the occasional cliché like that. But only occasionally.
Now, underneath everything, it’s actually quite funny – despite that occasional flirtation with cliché. Okay, it’s very suspiciously like Rules of Engagement (and the near-forgotten What I Like About You) but this story of two sisters, one in a happy relationship for nine years but unmarried, the other getting pregnant and engaged to a guy she’s been dating for seven weeks, does have some good lines, some good actors, touches on some interesting aspects of relationships and – vitally – makes you laugh.
The trouble is the studio audience crushing every ounce of comedy out of the situation. Here, a trailer and a clip so you can see what I mean.
Maddie and Ben have been dating for nine years. They know each other inside and out, a relationship marked by contentment and affection, seeing their commitment to one another as a “valid life choice,” something they proclaim often—and often loudly. Maddie’s younger sister, Mia, has been dating Casey for seven weeks. With a shared c’est la vie attitude, Mia and Casey are smitten with each other, and thrilled to explore the oh-so-many things they don’t know about each other yet. But when they announce they’re getting married and having a baby, it’s news that throws Maddie for a loop. Surprisingly, the girls’ parents, Vicky and Joel, couldn’t be more pleased. Married 35 years, they have recently adopted a carpe diem sort of philosophy, rather like Mia’s, maybe because they’re getting older and lost a good portion of their savings when the economy tanked. With three very different relationships tightly intertwined in one family, will it be free thinkers vs. over-thinkers, or will each couple begin to see things a little bit differently?
Better With You stars JoAnna Garcia as Mia, Jennifer Finnigan as Maddie, Josh Cooke as Ben, Jake Lacy as Casey, with Kurt Fuller as Joel and Debra Jo Rupp as Vicky.
The series is from Bonanza Productions Inc. in association with Silver and Gold Productions and Warner Bros. Television. Shana Goldberg-Meehan is executive producer and writer. The pilot was directed by James Burrows.
Is it any good?
If you could do the equivalent of squinting with your ears as well as your eyes, this would be a good show. Unfortunately, that’s actually impossible so we’re going to have to leave it at “okay” unfortunately.
Let’s starts by revisiting one of those claims I made earlier: I said there were some good actors in this. Now, if you watched the clip or the trailer I embedded earlier, you’d probably be wondering if I was on crack. Yet JoAnna Garcia alone was about 100 times better in Privileged than she is here. The trouble is that everyone in the cast are acting up for the benefit of the studio audience. It’s noticeable that in all the scenes that are filmed inserts – like in the taxi to the restaurant – everyone’s acting is much subtler.
Damn you studio audience.
Then there’s the laughter track. Every time a funny joke comes along, there’s the audience’s laughter to stop any feelings of hilarity you might have being converted into laughter. The audience also drowns out at least a couple of good lines and it laughs at plenty of things that aren’t funny, making you think that
- They can’t be trusted – if they’re laughing you probably shouldn’t be
- You want to rebel against the masses and not laugh when they laugh.
I actually had to force myself to laugh when I found myself wanting to laugh but then not wanting to laugh because the audience was laughing. Follow me? Probably not.
Laughter track aside, though, Better With You, while it’s not Modern Family or Community, does at least entertain and amuse a good 25% to 50% of the time. While a lot of the relationship observations are clichéd (old couples are mean to one another or don’t talk because they’ve run out of things to say; the passion’s gone by the time you’ve been together a few years; and so on), the characters are unique enough that the whole affair doesn’t get swamped in the generalities being bandied about (Casey plays in an “avant garde heavy metal band with a performance art component”, for example, and Ben isn’t a total wimp or girly-man, as so many male characters are in sitcoms these days), and it does touch on some interesting issues – yes, not getting married is a “valid life choice”, but can you take the pressure from relatives and do you really want to get married deep down – or if you didn’t, do you want to now? If so, why?
I can’t say I’m in love with any of the characters, although the individual actors are all appealing and JoAnna Garcia’s is quite fun: it’s not often that you get female inventors who aren’t dorks as the focus of sitcoms. But I liked Better With You enough to want to tune in next week.