The kindest way I can think to explain the Ellen DeGeneres-produced “One Big Happy,” which premiered Tuesday on NBC, is that the daytime talk-show star has become our culture’s lovable gay grandma. And like any grandmother, she’s a little out of touch with what the kids are doing nowadays; she really thinks this retro sitcom is the best way of explaining the Lesbian Lifestyle to the straights.
Or maybe just the olds. I honestly am not sure who the demographic is for this show, whose laugh track seems even more grating than normal. Maybe because so many of the canned haw-haws are at eye-rolling jokes about being gay that would have felt stale ten years ago.
Furthermore, as I’ve asked time and again, why is the laugh track even a thing? Who still needs to be told what to laugh at? Didn’t “30 Rock” and “Louie” and “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” and “Arrested Development” (add your own favorites here) kill off the idea that a comedy needs it to be successful?
Of course, this show was created by someone who comes from a laugh-tracked show – Liz Feldman, a writer and producer from “Two Broke Girls,” who has said she based “One Big Happy” loosely on her own life.
More importantly – and rather stunningly – it’s the first sitcom to feature a lesbian lead since DeGeneres’, nearly two decades ago. For that reason, primarily, I wanted to root for it, but I was so ground down by the end of Episode 2 that I gave it up.
Elisha Cuthbert (“Happy Endings”) stars as Lizzy the lesbian, whose straight best friend Luke (Nick Zano, also of “Happy Endings”) agrees to father a child with her – and impregnates her – just as he also falls in love with a British illegal alien and marries her on the second date. (I’m guessing not all of these details correspond to Feldman’s actual life.)
Said alien is named Prudence, and played by Kelly Brook, whose statuesque good looks and never-ending cleavage put me more in mind of Kelly LeBrock – you know, the one who was conjured up as the ultimate woman in (the wrong-for-so-many-reasons) “Weird Science” back in the ’80s. Prudence is as feminine as Lizzy is mannish – or, at least, androgynously styled – and, as if to flaunt it, she’s constantly either hugging Lizzy awkwardly into her breasts or literally walking around the shared apartment naked. She’s a sexist caricature of what a man wants: A free spirit who never wears any outfit that falls below mid-thigh who’s really into sci-fi too. “You’re like a unicorn I can have sex with!” says Luke.
Most of Lizzy’s dialogue, meanwhile, seems to revolve around reminding people that she’s a lesbian, making lesbian jokes that seem hopelessly outdated (“Even during a breakup we’re chatty!”), and going, “Ugh, straight people!” whenever Luke and Prudence do some weird straight-people thing, like kissing.
But the oddest scene in the first episode, hands down, is the one between Lizzy and Prudence, in which the Brit is nude (albeit pixelated) the entire time the two are conversing in the kitchen, for no reason whatsoever. First Prudence asks Lizzy to assess her potential as a lesbian, then she proceeds to give Cuthbert’s character a full-body hug, to which Lizzy’s low-affect response is “Vagina… on my leg.” Prudence accuses her of not being a very good lesbian. The whole thing seemed strangely reminiscent of the very striking lack of sexuality of DeGeneres’ character on “Ellen,” actually. It’s as if, all these years later, NBC (which, it bears mentioning, decided to run with this show and passed on Tina Fey’s delightfully absurd “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) is still petrified of what its viewers might think if they were tipped off that lesbians actually, you know, have sex and like it.
And why, exactly, do we need to break viewers into the idea of lesbians? They’re all around us in the pop cultural sphere, after all. “Orange is the New Black” may be the current frontrunner, but it’s certainly not the only show to feature gay (or bi) women, as a recent roundup on AfterEllen.com showed. After “The L-Word,” after “Glee,” after “True Blood,” after “Grey’s Anatomy,” after “Orphan Black” – can lesbians still really be that alien to the average TV-watcher?
Back when “Will & Grace” premiered in 1998, its premise felt at least a little edgy. The fundamental setup of this show is sort of its flip-side cousin, but without the quippy writing or the scene-stealing best friends. Cuthbert and Zano are both perfectly likable, if palpably trying really hard, but the whole setup just seems so tired, you almost immediately forget why it’s the least bit radical.
And in that way, perhaps DeGeneres’ has actually succeeded: she’s created a sitcom that’s just as unambitious as any straight-person network comedy. Sure, that’s a little underwhelming and slightly depressing, but if this is what it takes to completely normalize lesbians in mainstream entertainment, so be it.