Two men — one gay, one straight — are best friends. Their respective mates know that to love one of the duo means spending inordinate amounts of time with the other. It’s a strong foundation for a sitcom, so much so that creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan ran it into the ground during eight seasons of Will & Grace.
Mutchnick and Kohan have resurrected the concept, changed a few details, and re-launched it under the name Partners. However, where Will & Grace felt fresh and clever (at least initially), Partners is already tired and uninspired. It isn’t just the concept that’s unoriginal, but also the scripting. The show has an abundance of jokes, but few elicit more than a grin.
There are other differences between then and now: instead of a relationship between a gay male and a straight female, Partners features two men. When Will & Grace premiered in 1998, gay marriage was still banned in all 50 US states, the Defense of Marriage Act had only recently been passed, and hate crime legislation was routinely defeated in Congress. A close friendship between a gay man and a straight man would have made network TV programmers nervous, based on dominant cultural presumptions that no straight man would invite inevitable ridicule by his straight friends. At the same time, since numerous gay men were known to have close female friends, commonly known as “fag hags,” the general public was more likely to accept a show featuring such a cross-gender friendship.
Today, the culture is more accepting of homosexuality, and numerous public figures — from stars to athletes to politicians — have come out in support of LGBT relatives and friends. It is no longer a foreign concept that a gay male and straight male can be best friends, and Kohan, who is straight, and Mutchnick, who is gay, embody it perfectly. Not only are they friends, they are also business partners, just like the lead characters in Partners.
Joe (David Krumholtz) and Louis (Michael Urie) have known each other since they were kids, and now they run an architecture firm together. Each episode opens with a flashback showing a moment from their childhood that sets up a theme for the episode, à la Psych. This opening sequence then cuts to the pair discussing the pressing problem that will be the source of their eventual discord. In both the pilot and second episodes, Joe is having problems with his girlfriend (soon to be fiancée), Ali (Sophia Bush), prompting Louis to meddle, in an effort to rectify the problem. In each of these instances, Louis only makes matters worse and spends the remainder of the episode trying to undo the damage he has caused, while seeking to patch things up with the rightfully angry Joe.
Too often lost in the shuffle is Louis’ boyfriend Wyatt (Brandon Routh), who appears to have a stronger, more honest relationship with Joe than he does with Louis, who is equally self-absorbed and too wrapped up in Joe’s life. This is made clear in the pilot when Louis is listening to Joe and warns him, “If this story isn’t about you or me in the next 30 seconds, I’m going to eat my fist.” In episode two, Louis forgets Wyatt’s fifth year sobriety anniversary, and it take Joe ordering a cake for Wyatt and putting Louis’ name on the attached card to smooth over Wyatt’s hurt feelings.
The one person who does pay attention to Wyatt is RoRo (Tracy Vilar), Joe and Louis’ sassy and sarcastic secretary who spends much of her time flirting with Wyatt. She’s also the only one at the firm who appears to do any work, as it remains a mystery what contributions Louis makes to the firm, aside from throwing himself on the sofa and getting RoRo to check out which local hair removal services will depilate his testicles.
A larger mystery is why Joe remains friends with Louis. After Louis causes Ali to break off her engagement to Joe, Joe announces that the friendship and partnership are both over. This is the most intelligent decision Joe makes in the episode, and it is surprising how quickly and easily he forgives Louis — except as this fits sitcom formula, which makes it not surprising at all. This pattern of behavior, where Louis interferes then waits to be forgiven, suggests a serious dysfunction in the relationship that distracts from the show’s humor.
That is particularly problematic because the humor is so feeble to begin with. For example, Wyatt, a nurse, is wearing a heart-shaped pen and tells Joe, “I’ve got a heart on. I can give you one if you want,” to which Joe predictably replies, “No, I don’t think you can.” One can easily picture Beavis and Butthead chortling, “He said, ‘Heart on.'”
With a flamboyant irritant and a worrisome doormat as protagonists, Partners will have trouble getting viewers to care about their fates. As on Will & Grace, the supporting characters are more interesting than the leads, and frankly, aside from RoRo, they aren’t that interesting. Mutchnick, Kohan, and director James Burrows have produced groundbreaking and hilarious work in the past, so one can forgive this misfire of a show and hope that they soon revive their creative spirits, not their prior works.