Why Sitcoms like ‘Friends With Better Lives’ Never Stand a Chance

Why Sitcoms like 'Friends With Better Lives' Never Stand a Chance

After years and years of putting in time in front of the small screen, any fan of television can point out a bad sitcom without much of a problem. I certainly can, and I was able to say that way before I started doing this for a living.

So I might as well not mince words: “Friends With Better Lives”, currently airing on CBS on Monday at 8:30 PM Eastern, is a bad sitcom. For the time being, at least. And what stinks is that it’s squandering what potential it might have to be the next great hangout sitcom, and the Eye Net may not give it time to get there.

But why is “FWBL” so bad? The easy answer, of course, is that it’s just not funny. But I’m not obnoxious enough (at least not in public) to deem myself the sole arbiter of what’s funny. For all I know, there are millions out there who have watched the show’s first four episodes while holding their sides from all the laughs the show gave them.

What I’m talking about is that the show has fundamental flaws that are illustrative of why some comedies are wildly successful and funny and others fail miserably. These flaws are especially noticeable in the multi-camera format of “FWBL,” but can be seen in single-camera comedies as well.  There are a number of big reasons why sitcoms like “FWBL” stumble out of the gate and others, like “Trophy Wife” or “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” don’t:

Firstly, it seems like in bad sitcoms, the writers don’t trust that their characters’ personalities can generate humor, so they load them down with gags.  One of the plots from last Monday’s episode of “FWBL” was when the just-divorced, no-game doctor Will (James Van Der Beek) meets a wild woman in a bar and doesn’t know how to respond when she sends him a text of her privates. 

There were legitimate opportunities to squeeze humor from the fact that this handsome guy has no idea how to woo the ladies, but they were lost amongst an avalanche of dick pic jokes, even when he made the mistake of sending her a pic of himself “in repose”, so to speak. Then, when he corrected that mistake, he said “it told a story,” and that was that. That could have actually been the whole plot, much like the “shrinkage” plotline that George Costanza suffered through on “Seinfeld”. Instead we went from dick pic jokes to tired visual gags of Will being tied to the woman’s bed with Christmas lights.

Being gag-heavy is one of the reasons why “2 Broke Girls” has seen declining ratings in its third season. There’s definite chemistry between Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, and the recent guest arc by Eric Andre really showed the potential of what the show can be when the jokes are more about Caroline’s uptightness and Max’s emotional walls than about how short diner owner Han is or the umpteenth anal sex gag. But now that Andre has left, they’re back to the one-liners, and the audience is getting tired of the act.

Why have shows like “The Big Bang Theory” worked for the most part since day one, despite being in the derided multi-camera format? Because the characters’ personalities were established from the start, so jokes immediately came out of Sheldon’s Asperger-y tendencies, Leonard’s desire to be normal, Raj’s inability to connect with women and Howard’s sliminess.

On “FWBL,” there’s potential for that, especially between Will and the utterly single, successful, romantic cynic Kate (Zoe Lister Jones). We saw that in the second episode where they couldn’t bring themselves to kiss each other, even if it cost the both of them an intriguing menage a trois with yet another bar encounter. But Kate was also helping Will develop some game, and it’s definitely feeding a love-hate friendship that could flower into something more. The other four characters — married couple Andi and Bobby (Majandra Delfino, Kevin Connolly) and just-engaged lovebirds Jules and Lowell (Brooklyn Decker, Rick Donald) — are just not developed enough to do anything but spew snide one-liners.

The show also does a lot of telling and not a lot of showing. When you rely on gags, especially ones that tread the network standards and practices taste line, you tend to have to use a lot more words than you need. There could have been better ways, for instance, for the sexting jokes to play out than to just have a series of dick jokes. More looks of horror or laughs or exasperation would have gone much further than a torrent of wisecracks. In the threesome episode, there was a plot where the friends chide Jules for becoming a vegetarian like her Aussie fiancé; in a scene where she eats a burger, she’s almost as orgasmic as Meg Ryan at Katz’s Deli. And while the scene didn’t completely work, and a squirt of mayo coming out of the burger was a bit on the nose, I give the writers credit for not explaining the joke with too many words.

It also doesn’t help to have plotlines that have been done to death on sitcoms for eons. In the sexting episode, Bobby and Lowell tear through a hospital tennis tournament, largely on the strength of the usually Zen-like Lowell being a taunting, competitive freak. But the plot fell apart immediately when two senior docs threaten Bobby with professional hell if they don’t throw the match. Why not play on Lowell’s ferociousness and how much it offended people instead of going the route of “throw the match or there will be trouble?”

There’s nothing really new about “Friends With Better Lives,” but there’s enough there to think that, with the time that most sitcoms need to find their legs, a lot of the problems detailed above can be worked out. But the show’s dismal ratings, paired with the looming upfront season, means that “FWBL” probably won’t get that chance. That sort of limited window makes it all the more important for sitcoms to debut with strong characters, even if it takes time for those characters to find their voice. “FWBL” didn’t do that, and it’ll likely pay the price for it. 

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Comments

anonymous

er, i kinda disagree i think it’s pretty funny. not like two and a half men funny, but a giggles here and there. not sure you guys remember gary unmarried, that was cancelled too. i was like wtf, that was gold.

Trekster

Just wanted to say I enjoyed this short lived series. There have been much worse that last far longer…

sandra

I really found the show interesting loved Kate character kind of reminded of jade west from victorious now u have hurt my feelings just wish they will bring the show back

sandra

Add your voice to the conversation…

Karen

I don’t agree. I loved this show and looked forward to it every week. I was so disappointed when it was cancelled. It was funny and I would like to see another channel pick it up.

Kshizzle

I totally agree! As a woman of race Im very disappointed to see that there is no ethnic representation at all! Bastards! PS Go the MINDY PROJECT PPS How obnoxious to name your sitcom after an epic institution that is FRIENDS!

    Leo

    Anyone that thinks fwbl is “not funny ” is a pessimistic bastard who finds pleasure in bringing down good shows in the most
    unimaginable twisted ways

anon

horrible review good show stupid network broke girls sux fwbl gold nuff said

Erica gugumuck

I am upset that FWBL was cancelled. My husband and I loved that show. It was so funny. It dealt with topics we can all relate to. I'm sad to see it go, hoping they change their minds or another network picks it up for next season. Fingers crossed!

Mos

"I certainly can, and I was able to say that way before I started doing this for a living."

OMG!! You watch television for a living? From the basement of your parents' abode?

Jesus, this self-important tripe of a review that masquerades as an intellectual exercise in parsing the finer points of comedy reads instead like a glimpse into the mind of a man with no reason at all to believe that anyone should not regret the time wasted on perusing his oh-so-carefully constructed thoughts that, in the end, reveal a useless human being.

See? Anyone can write a review. Please find another form of "employment".

Pea

I am truly disappointed about the cancellation of this show. Though I was not able to catch it the first time around, I always managed to watch it On Demand and found it quite entertaining. I liked the ensemble cast and anyone with good judgement and a lick of sense could see that they were just starting to get warmed up. Disappointing indeed…

LoriW

I loved this show and found it hilarious. I am extremely disappointed that it was cancelled. Bad decision as it is the funniest sitcom I've seen in quite some time!

Rita Isenogle

Friends with Better Lives was never my favorite thing – but I did see a couple episodes. I really
was disappointed with the last one that showed how they all thought that the guy that is a doctor
got drunk and accidentally went to bed with an older woman. I mean they acted as if he had
been with a leper. How often does TV or movies show a 60 or more old man with a 30 or
younger woman – and that is applauded by all. For one thing the woman was very pretty and
he could have done worse and I am sure he has. Being in the older woman category I have
gone out with men many years younger than I – and it is not a big deal. I just think that
show's attitude was being rude and disrespectful to older women. It wasn't close to being funny.
If that's the best they got – it sucks.

tedra

Let me add…I am a 60 years young!

tedra

Loved this show…characters were all funny…laughed out loud….I looked forward to it every week…cannot believe it was cancelled

G

I think you're an over thinking out munch whose comedic taste can be found in your belly button!! Seriously, multi-camera, single camera… Who gives a shit!! All truly great comedies didn't burst from the gate!! FRIENDS, was an exception to the rule, but let's not forget classic sitcoms like All In The Family which was almost canceled after it's first season, same for MASH!! I believe both stayed on air for over 10 years! Golden Girls, Designing Women, Facts of Life, and even Will & Grace had less than stellar first seasons. Do you know why they survived? The writing!! The writing was exceptional and people wanted to watch them because they were well thought out comedies!! I like Friends with Better Lives regardless of how many cameras they use!! Your problem is that you think you are some kind of television master when in reality you're 20 something tv snob with no insight to what makes a show of any kind even remotely amusing. And if you know anything at all about sitcoms then answer this question; Who got their start in SOAP, what was Hello Larry and what show did it spin off of, and what was the name of the short lived sitcom starring Bernadette Peters in the late '70's?

MSC

I liked it. It's a shame to see it get cancelled. In my opinion it was better than Two and a Half Men after Charlie Sheen left and Ashton Butcher took the lead.

MrD

I liked it; hope it goes on for couple of years :D

Henry

Checked out the pilot and never came back. As mentioned the show offered nothing new and different. Basically a younger, modern version of "Friends".
The author of this post failed to mention how Big Bang is different in that it's about nerds trying to fit into the regular world. That unique but simple premise is filled with awkwardness that fuels hilarious situations. How many times have we seen the just divorced or boring married couple gag in the last 40 years?

Alex

It should be called: White people who never hang out with other races.

tbwb

I understand, but I kind of disagree. First off I do have to say about the tennis match, you say it's been done before, but you wanted them to continue with his obnoxious competitiveness, which I do agree they should have, but goin on the direction they went, seemed very different than usual.

But going back to what has been done before I think is what makes this show good, other new sitcoms on today are trying to be so different, and that is why they end up failing. I also don't necessarily want to know that deep into all the characters yet, I know loosely about who they are, but that keeps me coming back for more and watching their characters develop as the show goes on, rather than being told, usually in an obvious way in the pilot, who every character is and their back story and then lose interest because I feel like I already know them. Take Mixology for example the show itself is ok, but the way they have it set on one night through out an entire season is completely different and I keep watching to learn more about the characters. I think once this show really gets going it could follow in the footsteps (never catch up though) to Friends.

John S

Great analysis. I would add, though, that the fact that it apparently never occurs to these writers that they should have "strong characters" out the gate is the real problem. Creating strong characters over time is, um, not how scripting ANYTHING works? At all? Characters and character arcs are two different things and it seems like these writers are confusing the two.

Christen Kimbell

This was a great essay, very accurate about what doesn't work in terrible sitcoms. I'd add that repetition is the other half of this coin – if we've seen the joke a hundred times, it ain't funny anymore.

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