Sitcoms cannot subsist on comedic situations alone. All good TV humor is character-driven, from Archie Bunker to Cosmo Kramer. When last we saw Jenna Elfman, she was attempting to create such an idiosyncratic icon, playing a flaky free spirit in ABC’s semi-hit, Dharma & Greg. At first compared to Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore, she was, five short seasons later, cancelled.
Following a not-so-electrifying effort to break into movies, Elfman is back in a midseason replacement for CBS. And if the debut episode of Courting Alex is any indication, Elfman may have a winner on her hands. A basic reconfiguration of creator Fred Baron’s UK show, According to Bex, Elfman plays Alex Rose, a workaholic attorney in her father’s (Dabney Coleman) powerful New York City firm. She’s so busy she hasn’t been to the grocery store since 2002 and takes important phone calls while on a dinner date. Yet Alex is also suffering a sort of mid-midlife crisis: she actually hates being alone. So, as Dad tries to hook her up with some loser lawyer in the office named Stephen (Josh Stamberg), Alex begins a process of soul-searching.
Such introspection leads to her first serious crush, a young tavern owner named Scott (Josh Randell). Unfortunately, Scott’s bar is holding up a huge business deal that Daddy Rose wants very badly. Thus this series sets up its first novel conceit. Instead of wrapping up the pilot episode with a clever denouement, Courting Alex leaves the fiscal triangle unresolved. Moreover, it’s unclear whether Alex is interested in Scott because of passion or an interest in breaking out of her funk. Recognizing herself in bland Stephen, Alex wants excitement, something she thinks she sees in desirable dreamboat Scott.
When focused on our fetching female lead, Courting Alex is effervescent. Eflman makes even some incredibly hackneyed exchanges between daughter and father dance with delight. Coleman is no slouch, but only gets off two good jokes in the first episode, mostly playing the stereotypical dad who hates to see his daughter unhappy and unmarried. The fact that Alex is a cranky stick-in-the-mud who wouldn’t know a good time if it jumped up and bit her in the briefs insults her intelligence, not to mention her obvious success in a male-dominant profession. And yet, somehow, the show suggests that such achievement is hollow without a man to have and hold.
Equally aggravating in a totally different way is Alex’s upstairs manfriend, Julian (Hugh Bonneville). Part horny hound (propositioning Alex for a little slap and tickle), part smarmy jester, he apparently can enter her apartment whenever he wants (Alex does not lock her NYC doors — imagine that). He seems the most likely character to be written out of the series, offering nothing except occasional wit.
Which brings us back to Elfman. Alex is one of those “works in progress” who often show up in sitcoms about single women — which makes her open to both possibilities and problems. The show can make use of this tension, but it might also fall prey to it. Ditching the serialized approach to the relationship with Scott in favor of more Julian and Stephen would be a step in the completely wrong direction. Staying “unsettled” within a standard sitcom format could be worse. Elfman can create one of those iconic television personalities. With Dharma, she almost did it. Here’s hoping that Alex allows her to explore the full extent of her comedic capabilities.