Quietly, the success of “Modern Family” has spilled all over the networks, like a busted condom with a thousand different bad ideas floating in sitcom semen. Within the last six or seven months, there have now been three “Modern Family” clones: “Perfect Couples” on NBC, the one that I can’t think of that comes on before “Modern Family” on ABC, and now, Fox’s new show, “Traffic Light.” They each involve three couples at varying stages of their relationships. “Modern Family” is more family focused — there are more kids on that show — and it takes a farcical approach, merging wit and slapstick and punctuating each episode with a healthy dollop of poignancy. The other one on ABC, the one I can’t be bothered to remember, involves siblings at various stages of their relationships, and features bland forgettable characters and broad, lazy stereotypes. “Perfect Couples” over on NBC is marginally better, has a decent cast, and the occasional moment of humor, but it suffers from trying way too hard and fails to find relatable situations.
“Traffic Light,” which premiered last night after “Raising Hope,” is easily the best of the clones, featuring an instantly likable cast (despite the relative lack of face recognition, besides Pam’s old boyfriend from “The Office”). It mines gendered humor, but, in the pilot episode at least, not with the broad brush strokes that “Perfect Couples” uses, but with a certain Seinfeldian attention to minutia, sprinkling pop-culture effluvia (Chumbawamba, Iron Man) into the plotlines and concluding with light pathos in a fashion similar to “Modern Family.”
I don’t know what it is about this marital humor that’s sometimes appealing, but when we get married and have kids, our relationships often echo sitcom clichés. Shows like “According to Jim” or “Perfect Couples” abrasively shout them back at you in ways that almost make you feel ashamed for being a part of that institution. But “Modern Family” and, perhaps, “Traffic Light” dig deeper into the wrinkles of those clichés to find where the true source of humor resides. The pilot for “Traffic Light” hits upon a fairly common trope: Escaping our families for a few hours to ourselves. Broadly, that’s not very funny. But to some who have actually spent a few extra minutes in their cars to avoid the responsibility that awaits them inside, or endured the psychological husband/wife mindgame it often takes to get out of the house, there were some smaller, funnier truths hidden within “Traffic Light” to go along with the absurd flourishes (a clown wrestler, a traffic cop with a dry sense of humor).
Granted, it’s only 22 minutes, and “Traffic Light,” which is based on an Israeli show by the same name, has the potential to fall into the same traps that confine “Perfect Couples.” The women, for instance, are barely fleshed out in the pilot, although I found something affectionately likable in the no-nonsense mother and wife, and at the very least, the females aren’t bland stereotypes with boobs. There are reverberations of Apatow in the male friendships here, for good or bad, and I have still yet to meet this 30-something single guy who gets laid every night of the week in real life, much less one of those guys who also hangs out the marrieds. But the writing, from Bob Fisher (Wedding Crashers), is as clever as it often is astute, and while there was some unevenness in the pilot, there is plenty of reason to believe “Traffic Light” could become the little “Modern Family” clone that could.