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‘Undateable,’ ‘Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris,’ and the Live TV Revival

'Undateable,' 'Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris,' and the Live TV Revival

Midway through the hour-long season premiere of “Undateable,” NBC’s live, multi-camera sitcom, the ensemble cast suddenly crowds the center of the set, a suburban Detroit dive named Black Eyes Bar. Insults fly, the blocking disintegrates, actors in the background begin to break: in other words, with the episode’s awkward, winking nods toward the format briefly forgotten, “Undateable” finally creates the kind of productive chaos that is live TV’s foremost pleasure—and the reason why its network revival is already underway.

“Undateable,” which focuses on 34-year-old ne’er-do-well Danny (Chris D’Elia), his buttoned-up roommate, Justin (Brett Morin), and their crew of unlucky-in-love contemporaries, was once a solid, unspectacular update of “Friends”—looser, franker, but still resolutely conventional. Until last spring, that is, when the series, created by Adam Sztykiel, aired a successful, one-off live episode that likely saved it from the chopping block. With NBC’s once-revered stable of comedies in tatters, “Undateable” momentarily tapped into what the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo has called “the communal future of TV,” particularly on Twitter, and executives responded in kind: now all-live, “Undateable” is the network’s only returning sitcom of the season.

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Three episodes in, the result, in theory, is a bold experiment, though it’s one that too often relies, in practice, on familiar beats and knowing humor, as if to apologize for its very existence. With allusions to DVR, “Empire” spoilers, and the network’s struggles, “Undateable” shellacs itself in protective coating, when the appeal of live viewing has always been a certain vulnerability. We watch, if we’re honest, for the break, the ad-lib, the flub—the evidence, in short, that TV retains some modicum of “the real” after all. For the most part, unfortunately, the series’ live iteration seems a sitcom stage play performed in medium close-up, unable to veer off-script. 

If “Undateable” fails to turn the constraints of live TV to its advantage, however, its bright spots still suggest that the format’s return to prominence is something more than a gimmick. When Morin laughs during a “stolen glances” bit with his love interest, Candace (Bridgit Mendler), or a “Summer Lovin'” sing-along drifts out of tune, the series uncovers a light, spontaneous rhythm almost alien in this age of the showrunner-as-auteur, with Easter eggs planted and traps laid and every detail arranged just so. I only wish entire episodes replicated the fleeting melee of the season premiere: until “Undateable” truly embraces the format—rather than merely acknowledging it—the promise of “the real” that live TV holds will be no more than a figment of its imagination.

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Whether the live revival solves the problem of time-shifting remains to be seen, of course, and Manjoo’s “communal” vision is but one of many possible futures. For its first two episodes this season, “Undateable” attracted less than half the total audience of its main competitor, ABC’s anodyne Tim Allen vehicle “Last Man Standing”—a reminder that retaining “social engagement” from week to week is a far cry from getting viewers to heckle the likes of “Peter Pan Live” (NBC) from the Internet’s cheap seats. (NBC, as you may have gathered by now, has set the trend—beginning with “The Sound of Music Live” in 2013 and continuing with “The Wiz Live” this December—but FOX plans to ride the wave as well, with “Grease Live” set to air in January.) A single live performance offers us a chance to act like groundlings at the Globe; a live series demands something more like sustaining membership.

This is true, it appears, even of “Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris” (NBC), a delightfully anarchic mash-up of just about every variety-show convention in the history of television: celebrity guests, “Candid Camera”-style pranks, musical interludes, physical competitions, and prize giveaways, all capped each week by a grand finale that spins “Cirque du Soleil,” Broadway, and Cecil B. DeMille into pomo-pastiche cotton candy. (Online and in the studio, the audience seems almost shell-shocked: as one viewer tweet shown at the beginning of the second episode had it, “WTF is happening? This shit is bonkers.”) Already falling far short of the network’s rather delusional ratings expectations, the whole thing leaves me feeling a bit woozy. I love it unreservedly.

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Harris, a proven Tony Awards emcee, understands that the unexpected is the heart of the matter, and give or take a bit too much network cross-promotion (“The Voice,” “The TODAY Show,” even “Football Night in America” turn up in one or another gag), he manages to guide “Best Time Ever” again and again toward a sort of screwball mayhem. Jane Krakowski forces Jesse Tyler Ferguson to ask a contractor for “a refrigerator big enough to fit a man in”; Susan Lucci reads from an audience member’s teenage diary; Reese Witherspoon, white as a sheet, recovers from a scramble to the top of a sky-high structure. “He emailed me, ‘Hey, let’s do a little stunt!'” she says of Harris before the cut to commercial, and here is the keystone of the series’ strange art: she’s as surprised as we are.

As with any live sketch show, there are misses to accompany the hits, and “Best Time Ever” has already dashed my hope that each episode would follow its own deranged format; it is absolutely not to be binged. Still, while it appears unlikely that “Best Time Ever” will become the breakout hit NBC wanted, the series consistently strikes the chord of immediate connection between viewer and viewed for which live TV is always striving. “I can promise you an hour unlike anything else on television,” Harris proclaims at one point, and he’ll get no argument from me.

“Undateable” airs Fridays at 8pm on NBC. “Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris” airs Tuesdays at 8pm on NBC.

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