I’m With Her

I’m With Her may be the most innovative show of the season. Whereas other shows recycle old ideas about unhappy people (Whoopi Goldberg is cast as a “female Archie Bunker”; Coupling features three angry, sex-obsessed couples; dysfunctional families reign in It’s All Relative, Hope & Faith, and The Mullets), I’m With Her is nice, and that makes it new.

The “her” of I’m With Her is Alex Young (Teri Polo), a movie star, one of those “America’s Sweethearts” in the mode of Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts. One day the Movie Star meets a sweet but unpolished high school English teacher named Patrick Owen (David Sutcliffe). They begin dating. The ensuing comedy is based on the awkward early days of a dating relationship, enhanced by their different positions: when she’s attending star-studded movie premieres, he’s attending faculty meetings. The basic question is wonderfully conveyed by the theme song, Joe Jackson’s late ’70s hit, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”

Created by Chris Henchy, who based the series on his own real life experiences as a “nobody” married to Brooke Shields, I’m With Her is a pleasant throwback, a return to a time when TV characters were actually likable and liked each other. It also serves to remind us of just how very seldom primetime TV chooses to deal with the subject of romantic love. Usually male-female relationships on TV are of the Sam and Diane or David and Maddie variety: the two principals are constantly at each other, throwing zingers and put-downs as some sort of foreplay.

Moreover, primetime love tends to be, as they say, “all about the nookie,” notable examples being the heyday of the primetime soaps and recent reality TV. By contrast, Alex and Patrick didn’t even kiss until the second episode, and even then it was brief, shorter and less sloppy than the one Britney and Madonna shared recently on MTV. The gentle nature and deliberate pacing of the series harks back to FOX’s Duet, which, after a delightful first season, fell apart as the writers apparently ran out of ideas for an ongoing courtship and rushed the couple through marriage and the birth of their first child.

I’m With Her brings more to the table, with the culture-clashing premise. Beyond obvious humor (Hollywood paparazzi popping up at the junior prom), the series has begun to explore issues born of this set up, most notably, personal identity and identification. In the first episode, Patrick, used to reconstructing words and meanings, is dumbfounded at a movie premiere when a security guard asks him a simple question that takes on metaphysical qualities: “Do you belong here?” It’s a weighty topic to be tackled by a sitcom, and yet, it indicates a problem here: the two protagonists have yet to find themselves. So far, in order to make Alex and Patrick extremely likable, the writers have made them one-dimensional. Details (maybe one can collect Beanie Babies or shop compulsively on eBay) would develop them into something more substantive than The Star and The Teacher.

By contrast, the two supporting characters are better developed. Both Alex and Patrick have one same-sex friend-and-sounding board each. Patrick’s is fellow teacher Steve (Danny Comden), an aging frat boy in search of a party. Gifted with an ironic lack of principle and personal responsibility, he is giddy over his buddy’s new girlfriend, which makes him the perfect id to play off Patrick’s straightforward ego.

Alex’s friend is actually her younger sister Sherri (Rhea Seehorn). Along with being family, she’s one of those snobby Hollywood assistants-cum-hangers-on. While she plainly enjoys her sibling’s reflected fame, she’s still sardonic and commonsensical enough to bring Alex back down to earth. Their envy of their friends’ is the foundation of Steve and Sherri’s comedy. Right now, since Alex and Patrick are in the dizzy days of early love, most of the punch-lines in the show come via Steve and Sherry, who seem destined to become to I’m With Her what Jack and Karen are to Will & Grace.

And yet, the show keeps Steve’s rowdiness and Sherri’s sarcasm more or less on the back burner. It’s a courageous move, to sacrifice the constant running rant of putdowns as punch-lines that are practically de rigueur on so many recent sitcoms. Instead, I’m With Her attempts to say something “positive” about people and the power of relationships, that people really can be good to each other and good for each other. The show is hopeful. When was the last time we saw that on TV?