David Caspe has had this fight before.
The creator of “Happy Endings” went into his first TV show facing low expectations from just about everyone. After all, who wants to watch a sitcom about a group of friends recuperating from two of its members’ impossibly awkward breakup? The second word in the portmanteau is “comedy,” after all, and it was impossible to imagine the couple recovering let alone think about laughing off the expensive heartbreak.
Yet with a bit of casting wizardry and the rapid wit of its writers’ room, “Happy Endings” morphed into one of the best comedies on TV. Caspe & Co. pushed past the uncomfortable opening quickly, moving on to true sitcom territory — “Happy Endings” was “Friends”-esque with a modern bent, but, sadly, couldn’t survive on the increasingly family-friendly ABC. Despite glowing reviews and a passionate fan base, Caspe’s first show only lasted three seasons, in part because it never overcame the early stigma of its fateful premise.
Now he’s at it again. In “Marry Me,” Caspe now finds himself with another off-putting initial story: Annie (“Happy Endings” veteran Casey Wilson) and Jake (supporting comedy power player Ken Marino) return from a long, fun-filled vacation only to have it all unravel when Annie inadvertently ruins Jake’s proposal. The rest of the pilot is spent watching the two jump in and out of the marriage ring, citing reason after even-more-ludicrous-reason to get married or not.
Based on these first 22 minutes, it seems like “Marry Me” will chronicle the difficulties that go into getting married: Not finding the right guy or girl, but actually surviving the engagement process without breaking up. Though each couple certainly goes through their own journey on the way to the alter, watching just the first episode of “Marry Me” brought up issues that didn’t feel organic. They felt forced. Annie won’t turn around and look at the man she wants to marry until after she’s spewed a vitriol against much of what he holds dear. Jake blames Annie for some trouble at the office when it seems like something he should have warned her about far sooner.
Scenes like these shouldn’t work, and they certainly don’t bode well for the future — but so much else does. Somehow even the most contrived moments of drama are made endearing and often funny by Wilson and Marino, a pair of talented comedians more than deserving of great material week in and week out. They might get it, too. Given Caspe’s one-show track record, he’s much better at rolling with what’s given to him than starting from scratch. Both of his shows stumbled out of the gate, but he adapted one quickly into exactly what it was meant to be and may do so again here.
“Marry Me” is much more focused on its problematic core couple, but it’s got a deep bench of supporting talent. Tim Meadows (“SNL”) and Dan Bucatinsky (“The Comeback”) play Annie’s parents as more than just gimmicky gay stereotypes (even though they’re both named Kevin) — their zippy verve and biting commentary establishes them quickly as characters instead of caricatures. The same goes for Dennah (Sarah Wright) and Gil (John Gemberling), who are still a little close to walking cliches of the Pretty Friend and Bearded Buddy, respectively, but appear three-dimensional enough to grow out of them.
There’s the rub, though. For all the jokes flying throughout the packed premiere, “Marry Me” can’t escape the limitations of its build — and it may not have time to break free of its own constraints. Modern broadcast TV lives and dies on early ratings, especially comedies. Without a big number on its first night, NBC may have to save another (potential) cult favorite from extinction. But before we start thinking about happy endings, let’s make sure “Marry Me” changes for the better and not the worse.