You have to hand it to executives at TV Land: They know what their product is, and who their audience is, and in branching out into original programming, they have looked to the long-retired shows they air as guides. More importantly, they cast their own sitcoms with a handful of stars known for their roles on series in syndication that would be at home on, say, TV Land’s lineup. Take the network’s first sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland,” which debuted in 2010 and returned last week for its second season. You know its stars already — Betty White (“The Golden Girls”), Jane Leeves (“Fraiser”), Wendie Malick (“Just Shoot Me”) and Valerie Bertinelli (“One Day at a Time”) — and you may have loved them in the roles they are famous for. But even if you specifically aren’t thrilled to see them gathered and repackaged in front of a new studio audience, relying on the skills and personas they have crafted throughout years spent on TV, your parents or grandparents surely will be.
Enter “The Exes,” the network’s latest sitcom, which debuted last week. Here is a second collection of stars you already know: Kristen Johnston (“3rd Rock From the Sun”), Donald Faison (“Scrubs”), Wayne Knight (“Seinfeld”) and David Alan Basche (a lot of random stuff). Along with those familiar faces come familiar sets, plots and jokes. Sitcoms haven’t died, and ratings-wise they still are some of the most-watched programs on TV. But they aren’t as good as they used to be in the 1980s and ’90s. Shows such as “The Exes” are trying desperately to recapture the magic of that era, replicating the look and feel but, for the most part, not the laughs. “The Exes” fits in perfectly the land of nostalgia, where series are a form of comfort food, familiar and not the least bit threatening. But among smarter, hipper major network comedies, such as “Parks and Recreation” or “Modern Family”? It’s, well, something Grandma would laugh at.
That’s not to say “The Exes” is completely doomed from the start. The series, centering on three divorced men — Stuart (Basche), Phil (Faison) and Haskell (Knight) — sharing an apartment across the hall from their female divorce attorney, Holly (Johnston), who also is their landlord, has its moments and even resembles Fox’s new comedy “New Girl” in the setup. The gender dynamics are there, of three guys and a girl, although instead of the female being the newbie, it’s Stuart, the most recent divorcee of the crew and a type-A, needy do-gooder who grates on Phil and Haskell’s nerves. Stuart’s desires to be involved in his roommates’ lives hampers their routine of ignoring each other, Phil going about his business as a sports agent playing the dating field and Haskell doing little more than sitting on the couch and mastering his eBay skills. And just like in “New Girl’s” pilot, the original three band together to help save Stuart from hurt, in this case him realizing his ex-wife already is dating someone new. The sweetness isn’t entirely earned; only minutes before did we see Phil wanting Stuart to move out, then begging Stuart to stick around and serve as his wingman on a date at the downstairs bar. But asking for complete arcs and more believable stories in comedy pilots these days is generally asking too much.
Interestingly, Johnston and director Andy Cadiff say as much in a video on the show’s website. Both concede pilots generally are crammed to the brim with details to get the show rolling, and “The Exes” indeed feels stuffed, Cadiff adding that the first six or so episodes of a series are essentially extensions of the pilot. The show is building an audience, he says, therefore what said audience will get is still an elaborate introduction. This seems self-defeating, especially considering how trigger-happy TV executives are when it comes to cancellations. If cast and crew members are forced to beg viewers to stick around for a few months on the promise that by then the show will have found its rhythm, it’s no wonder most new series fail.
“The Exes” does, however, improve in its second episode, “A Little Romance,” during which Johnston works her knack for physical comedy to a tee as Holly finds her 6-foot self on a date with a much-smaller horse jockey, one of Phil’s clients. The client had passed up on the more-his-size Eden (Kelly Stables), Holly’s party-girl assistant, whose antics (She drinks a lot! She’s alludes to being a slut!) draw surprising laughter from the studio audience that feels a bit too “You go girl!” But the women as well as the men all have their charms — it’s great to see Faison back on TV — and the jokes work about 50 percent of the time. Perhaps by February it will be closer to 90 percent. Writer Mark Reisman does have hits in his credits as a producer on shows such as “Wings” and “Frasier.” It comes down to a viewer’s patience on whether it is worth waiting for the point when the show really starts clicking, if it comes at all. Either way, while “The Exes” may air on TV Land, it is doubtful this sitcom will become one fans will want to revisit again and again.
“The Exes” airs at 10:30PM/9:30C Wednesdays on TV Land.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama.