Review: Undateable 1×1-1×2 (NBC)

Undateable

In the US: Thursdays, 9/8c, NBC

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. At least, for NBC’s Undateable it was.

As the title suggests, this is a comedy about a bunch of hopeless male nerds who are basically undateable: they don’t look good, they don’t know how to talk or act around women, yet all they want in life is to win over some woman’s heart. Into their midst comes an alpha male, a modern Fonzie, who is the master of the one-night stand and small talk with the ladies. And he’s going to show them how to win it big with the girls.

Ordinarily, that would sound pretty horrible and given it stars Chris D’Elia (Whitney) as the neo-Fonz and is a multi-camera comedy filmed in front of studio audience in the worst traditions of CBS comedies – the success of which NBC is desperate to emulate – that potential for horrible only manages to near cesspit level depths.

But right now, thanks to the tragedy of Elliot Rodger, lonely nerds who have problems with women aren’t exactly a popular subject in the US – particularly ones that seek help from pick-up artists in shows that tell nerds that yes, your princess is in the same castle. Couple that with Elia’s decision to take to task in the worst possible way women around the world for the hashtag #YesAllWomen, which emerged following Rodger’s murders, and you’d presume, perhaps even hope, that Undateable would die a fiery death on arrival, just like any other NBC comedy you could care to mention, lest we all get the plague and die from its suppurating sores.

Yet, strangely, Undateable got the highest-rated summer debut for a network comedy in five years. On NBC.

WTF? What’s going on?

Well, Undateable isn’t quite what you might think it is. For one thing, it’s from Bill Lawrence, creator of Scrubs, Cougar Town and Ground Floor, so it was never going to be as stupid or as offensive as anything that the Chuck Lorre channel was going to throw our way. It’s also based on a book by two women – 311 Things Guys Do That Guarantee They Won’t Be Dating or Having Sex – and written by romcom specialist Adam Sztykiel (Made of Honour).

But more importantly, it’s not a programme that portrays women as objects or that shows that constant one-night stands are a good thing. Indeed, Neo-Fonzie isn’t the hero – just as the nerds are going to learn from him how to flirt and be confident, so he’s going to learn from them that actually, maybe his life is a bit empty and lonely and he needs to treat women better.

In a sense then, TV has never needed Undateable – a show that teaches nerdy men how to be nice to women, not to expect them as a prize and shows them that women are people with their own problems, too – more than it does right now.

I just wish – as I do with pretty much every NBC comedy – that it was a bit funnier.

Here’s a trailer or two:

About
From Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs,” “Spin City,” “Cougar Town,” “Clone High”) and Adam Sztykiel (“Due Date,” “Made of Honor”), “Undateable” is a new comedy series about a group of friends who are this close to finding a relationship – they just need a little help.

Whether it’s due to a lack of style, the wrong job or even just a bad haircut, everyone goes through a time in their lives when they’re undateable. Most of us eventually grow out of it, but some people need a little more help than others. Enter Danny Burton (Chris D’Elia, “Whitney”). Confident, attractive and impervious to outside opinions, 29-year-old Danny – who may be in a state of arrested development himself – decides to help out his new roommate, Justin Kearney (comedian Brent Morin), the owner of an unsuccessful bar and a chronic overthinker, and Justin’s group of oddball friends – Shelly (comedian Ron Funches), Burski (comedian Rick Glassman) and Brett (David Fynn, “Game of Thrones”). Danny introduces the gang to his recently divorced older sister, Leslie (Bianca Kajlich, “Rules of Engagement”), who immediately bonds with this group of guys, as she feels a little stuck in her own life as well. The gang spends most of their time at Justin’s bar, helping solve each other’s respective problems over beers, and while they love to give each other a hard time, they always have each other’s back.

Executive produced by Lawrence, Sztykiel and Jeff Ingold (“Ground Floor,” “Surviving Jack”), “Undateable” is inspired by the book “Undateable: 311 Things Guys Do That Guarantee They Won’t Be Dating or Having Sex” by Ellen Rakieten and Anne Coyle. The series is produced by Doozer in association with Warner Bros. Television.

Is it any good?
While it could certainly be funnier and it still suffers slightly from hot-women/not-hot-men syndrome, it’s not half bad, isn’t egregious towards either men or women, and is actually quite warm hearted.

The show’s quite even-handed, giving reasonable time to all its characters, doing its best to avoid stereotypes along the way. But it largely revolves around D’Elia’s character, his sister (Bianca Kajlich) and room-mate Justin (Brent Morin). D’Elia and Morin are what would normally be the two polar opposites in something like How To Be A Gentlemen, but here, D’Elia is neither neanderthal nor bully and Morin isn’t some Rick Moranis-alike. Both are closer to the middle, D’Elia merely confident but damaged and afraid of commitment, Morin sporty and not unattractive but lacking assertiveness and an outside perspective of his odder behaviours. D’Elia teaches, but his advice isn’t always good and is often not just ignored by Morin but rejected, turning a mirror on D’Elia to show him that maybe his attitudes might need adjustment – Morin is equally a teacher, since D’Elia is one of the undateables as far as any woman who wants more than just sex is concerned.

Kajlich in turn represents the older single woman, giving a female perspective on their behaviour and for what she herself wants, given she’s equally undateable – a 30 year old divorced mother. But she’s also assuredly a sister to D’Elia, worried that her brother is going to die old and alone, which again adds a more human element to the show.

But probably the smartest thing the producers did with Undateable was to recast the original object of Morin’s desire: the barmaid Nicki. Originally played by Hellcats’ Aly Michalka, who in no sense is a ‘girl next door’ (or age-appropriate for Morin), the producers moved schedules and mountains to get the role for one of their favourite actresses – Cougar Town and Ground Floor’s Briga Heelan. Heelan, while not quite firing at the full winning power she displays in Ground Floor, is a suitable match for Morin in both age and presence: someone who’s desirable as much for her personality as anything else, but also relatively normal in the supermodel world of US sitcom actresses. Her character needs a little work to be more than simply a love object for Morin – indeed, of all the characters, she’s the only one who’s eminently dateable – and it would be nice to know why she’s apparently single, for starters.

The other characters are there mainly to explore different aspects of ‘undateability’, from obesity to saying really sexist things. They get to learn what not to do, but they also get to teach D’Elia how to connect with other people, even as friends. There’s also an English gay character for no real reason I can see, given the general heterosexual theme of the show, other than to demonstrate that actually, gay men aren’t all good-looking or great at either relationships or sex.

But where the show falls down is in terms of laughs. It’s not quite there. While there are decent jokes and a reasonable number of chuckles, ongoing jokes are repeated, and given a lot of them didn’t work the first time, hearing them time after time after time only makes you want the show to stop, subtracting from its overall charms rather than leaving it ‘happiness neutral’.

So Undateable is promising. Its message of a universal desire to connect, even if none of those involved quite know how, helps it stand out from the crowd. It’s worth watching for Heelan alone but D’Elia is surprisingly winning (and has stopped smiling at all his jokes, which makes a change from Whitney) and it has some decent writing.

It just needs to be a bit funnier.