‘Perfect Couples’ Tries to Be ‘Friends’ for the Modern Audience

Five episodes in, the new NBC comedy Perfect Couples is still endearing. Sure, episode one was technically a pre-pilot, an attempt to gain committed viewers during the slow holiday season with a preview. But the show is officially in full swing now; it had its official premiere during NBC’s take back comedy block. In fact, it’s safe to say that Perfect Couples has been poised to become the modern day Friends, arguably one of the most popular sitcoms to ever air.

NBC’s “Must See TV” dominated Thursday nights. Launched right before the fall television season of 1993, it ended up being such a popular phrase that the network used it for all comedy programming, even that which was moved away from Thursday nights. The attempt to maintain a comedy block during Thursday’s prime-time television, however, remained the same. In 2006, NBC changed their slogan to “Comedy Night Done Right” to play off of the increasing popularity of shows in the vein of 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks and Recreation. In more recent years, they’ve taken this concept further, extending it to “Comedy Night Done Right — All Night.” Some have argued that this new three-hour block of shows is far too much to handle in one sitting, but sandwiched right in the middle is the blast-from-the-past concept in a new format, Perfect Couples.

NBC’s original comedy block included a variety of shows over the years, such as Friends, Suddenly Susan, Frasier, Just Shoot Me, Seinfeld, Veronica’s Closet, Scrubs, and Will & Grace. The general format of these shows was the same — traditional sitcom — but some of the best and most popular of our time were aired during this period of about ten years. Some considered it the Golden Age of television. Ratings were obscenely high, and the concept of just a few friends hanging out that both Friends and Seinfeld utilized proved that you didn’t need a gimmick to have a show become insanely popular.

But the sitcom format eventually became tired, and coupled with the growing popularity of mockumentary-style movies, shows like The Office took over NBC, bringing in a “new” style of comedy. The current line-up consists of Community, Outsourced, 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Perfect Couples.

Perfect Couples is a perfect example of our inability to get past this so-called Golden Age of Television. It’s essentially the Friends format that has been attempted over and over again; a group of friends with potential couples in a will-they-or-won’t they set up. The British show Coupling, which was also brought the the US, followed six friends, three guys and three girls. Two Guys and a Girl, My Boys, and a variety of less-popular and quickly cancelled shows varied the format, though could never quite recreate the same level of success. The Friends spin-off Joey tried to literally recreate the success of its predecessor, but was cancelled quickly. Only the CBS show How I Met Your Mother has effectively recreated the Friends format for a modern audience, replacing the famous coffee shop Central Perk with a bar.

But NBC hasn’t wanted to leave all the success to CBS. Perfect Couples, with its sort-of recognizable cast (save for Olivia Munn), sets up the conceit that all couples are weird, no matter how you look at them, and no matter how normal they think they are. Dave and Julia are the actually normal couple, who look on incredulously at the antics of their friends. Vance and Amy are the “too passionate” couple, and thus far, several of the plotlines revolved around the other couples dealing with their crazy and trying unsuccessfully to resolve the problem. They’re by far the most exciting of the couples; Vance considers himself “a victim of Amy’s emotional terrorism.”

But the couple that has by far the most potential for future hilarity are Rex (Julia’s brother) and Leigh (Olivia Munn’s character). Munn has received less-than-favorable reviews for her role on The Daily Show, but shocker-of-all-shockers, she’s revelatory on Perfect Couples. It’s a pleasant surprise, even given that Tina Fey championed her for the part. She and her husband play the incredibly uptight couple who think they’re the perfect ones, but episode after episode start to reveal cracks in the foundation. Rex is fully relishing the tight leash Leigh has put him on (it’s revealed in episode two that he proposed to her at Dave and Julia’s wedding, the same night he met her) while still trying to maintain the frat-boy lifestyle he lived during college. The only difference is that he’s moved on from beer bong to “Central Coast Pino.” During one game night, Rex says, “It feels like we’re back in college again! Who wants to get wasted?!” Leigh turns to him calmly and states that, “Alcoholics do, Rex.” Fully serious, he responds, “I love it when you can tame me.”

Perfect Couples lives in the same universe that Friends did, where nothing will go wrong in the outside world (Friends famously ignored the 9/11 attacks, feeling that people watched the sitcom to escape “the real world”). Perfect Couples is by no means perfect, and has received generally mixed reviews. In fact, Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times said that the creators “seem to believe that we need a modern television comedy to reiterate all of the gender antagonism and ignore any of the redemptive explorations of growth.” But relatively speaking, Perfect Couples just makes both men and women look stupid and confused, and doesn’t push either gender into typical categories of shrew or lazy. It does bring us back to the days when shows didn’t need a hot, new angle, or a traditionally boring environment to revitalize.

Who knows where it’ll go from here, but the show doesn’t have much of an agenda, which is rare for television today, scripted or non. If anything, these couples complement each other perfectly, even if they’re not perfect themselves. Perfect Couples probably won’t reach Friends status ubiquity, but times have changed. It’s unlikely that the simple television magic of the Friends-era will ever be recreated, and it probably shouldn’t be.