[24 September 2010]
In the new ABC sitcom Better With You, Maddie (Jennifer Finnigan) and Ben (Josh Cooke) are a two-career couple in their early 30s. After living together for a decade, Maddie describes their decision not to marry as a “valid life choice.” During the first episode, which aired 22 September, this choice was thrown into doubt when Maddie’s younger sister, Mia (Joanna Garcia), announced her engagement to Casey (Jake Lacy), whom she had only been dating for seven weeks. Predictably, Maddie and Ben started to question themselves in the face of the happily impulsive younger couple. It didn’t help that Maddie and Mia’s parents, Vicky (Debra Jo Rupp) and Joel (Kurt Fuller), were thrilled that at least one of their daughters was getting married.
Unfortunately, Better With You does not seem equipped or interested in engaging in the debate that underpins its concept. In this day and age, how important is marriage? Of course, this question usually arises in reference to the ongoing attempts to legalize same-sex marriage. Passionate arguments are made on both sides that marriage is a sacred bond that grounds our society. The disagreement is not about whether marriage is important, but about whether it should be available to everyone. So, it would be a bold and provocative TV show that questions the very concept of marriage itself.
Better With You is not going to be that show, that it won’t be exploring the institution of marriage as an option rather than an imperative. By the end of the episode, Maddie was questioning her relationship rather than defending it. This didn’t make sense, given her circumstances. Take the fact that she’s living in New York, as opposed to, say, Iowa, which undermines the premise of her apparent panic: not getting married by your 30s is pretty much the norm in the Big Apple. It is Mia and Casey who are the outliers among young professionals in that town.
To further complicate Maddie’s circumstances—but not really—Mia and Casey are actually getting married because she is pregnant. This may be another opportunity for the show to tackle some weighty issues. Do you need to be married to raise children? How do institutional questions (say, concerning insurance) shape emotional and moral decisions? But, again, based on the limited views attributed to Ben and Maddie, it seems doubtful that they will voice any opinions outside the norm, or press Mia and Casey to consider multiple options. Maybe an explanation for their attitudes is coming down the road, but in the pilot offers no indication as to whether Maddie and Ben have ever considered having children.
Honestly, Maddie and Ben’s “valid life choice”—a phrase repeated throughout the show—seems less like an indictment of marriage and more like the rationalization of two busy people who haven’t gotten around to it yet. It’s likely that, at some point during the run of this series (assuming it lasts more than a few episodes), these two will be engaged.
So, if it is not focused on exploring its basic potentially controversial conceit, what is Better With You trying to accomplish? It wants to be Friends.
Several members of the writing and producing team behind this sitcom—including Shana Goldberg-Meehan, Adam Chase, and Greg Mailns—cut their teeth on Friends, and its fingerprints are all over the new show. The jokes are delivered with the same rhythm and style, though they’re not nearly as funny. And the characters seem to be direct descendents: Maddie could be the daughter of anal-retentive Monica and Ben is a hybrid of intellectual Ross and sarcastic Chandler, with the insecurities of both. Casey is a stupid but loveable Joey, while Mia is trapped somewhere between wacky Phoebe and flighty Rachel. (It should be noted that the parents cannot be traced directly from Friends; instead, they are slightly less caustic versions of Frank and Marie Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond.)
But if we know what the show could be and what it wants to be, as well as what it won’t be, it’s harder to guess what it will be. So much plot was piled into the first outing that it could take a long time to separate the strands into coherent directions. Better With You has frontloaded all the big events that traditionally sustain sitcoms for years—weddings, babies—into its first 20 minutes. Maybe it is groundbreaking in that respect, but it so far, it just looks poorly thought out.
Instead, Better With You might try to be a straight-up joke/punchline/laughtrack sitcom. But that dooms it to comparisons with the other ABC shows such as Modern Family and The Middle that bookend it on Wednesday night. Those shows both have more distinct attitudes toward institutions like families and, particularly, marriage, than Better With You seems likely to find.