I made the mistake of telling Naomi I’m tired of women who never challenge me.
— Jake (John Stamos), Pilot
Introductions can be awkward, particularly on TV. There’s something both endearing and excruciating about the way a series pilot, that first please-please-like-me episode, strains to set plots in motion, explain and spark relationships, and make its case for a return viewing.
Exhibit A: The new single-camera half-hour starring John Stamos as Jake Phillips, a “smooth-as-silk publicist” (according to ABC’s publicity), ostensibly looking for love in the Big Apple. Jake in Progress isn’t ABC’s first post-Full House attempt to score ratings off Stamos’ dimples (he sparred with Melissa George in the stylish but short-lived Thieves), but it is the busiest. Latin beats (one of several echoes of Sex and the City), split screens, and collateral wackiness all but engulf Stamos as he tries to parlay his ease with romantic comedy into a steady primetime gig. The jittery, bombastic result is a sitcom with promise: given half a chance and half a Valium, Jake in Progress could smooth its erratic raw materials into a solid comedy for ABC.
For now, though, Jake‘s scripts aren’t smart enough, and neither are its camerawork and editing fluid enough, to use the split-screen to storytelling advantage. Half the good lines (Jake is called both Chachi and “that guy from Menudo”) and most of the necessary info is drowned out by visuals and soundtrack fighting to define the vibe.
If his show doesn’t last, creator Austin Winsberg (who served time writing on Glory Days and Still Standing) can always claim his original premise was mangled in development. Where Jake‘s initial episodes offer the PR playboy with a heart at least plated in gold a bevy of attractive dates, Winsberg pitched the series as a kind of rom-com 24. It was to follow Jake on just one date — with Madchen Amick — over the course of a season.
Winsberg’s allegiance to that idea lingers in the pilot (reportedly filmed with that other series premise in mind), which relies heavily on the buildup to Jake’s blind date with his boss’s (Wendie Malick) sister Kylie (Amick), and the reveal that they have previously met — and slept together. In her guest role, Amick is more fully realized than any of Stamos’ co-stars. Where Adrian (Ian Gomez) is Jake’s schlubby best friend since college, Naomi is Jake’s boss, and Patrick (Rick Hoffman) is the wacko (er, illusionist, first seen dangling in a Plexiglas box à la David Blaine) destined to attach himself to Jake, Kylie is just a woman preparing for a date. She has as much or more screen time than anyone but Stamos, and in her nervous preparations — trying on dowdy outfits (“like a Hasidic Jew going on your first trip to the mall,” her roommate says), getting eyeliner in her eye and on her shirt in the mad dash to finish primping before Jake’s arrival — she garners more good will with the audience than Jake does in the entire episode. We see who she is; Jake is so busy keeping the plates of his professional and friendly lives spinning that Winsberg calls on others to tell us who he is.
That, and he gives Jake an abundance of slick introductions. There’s a strut into the office (Magnum PR), where he issues orders to underlings and bestows a meaningless token on the receptionist. At the same time, Naomi tries via phone to convince her sister that Jake is not just another wheeler-dealer: “Jake is different. He’s honest, and he’s handsome without knowing it. Really he’s very charming. Oh, what can I say, Kylie, he’s just… Jake.” On the off-chance we’re not on board yet, moments later, Stamos re-enacts Harrison Ford’s shirt-changing scene in Working Girl: mid-conversation with Adrian about the horror of dating hot, vapid models, Jake turns toward the inner windows of his office to find a klatch of women staring with glee at his naked torso.
So Jake is hot. Check. But he’s also human! His palms sweat, a lot, when he’s nervous (“It’s called hyperhydrosis, and it’s a serious medical condition”). Kylie remembers this — the minute she opens the door, she recognizes him as the guy she hooked up with at a wedding — but apparently Jake doesn’t. He calls Adrian, a bored married, for help jogging his memory: “This is so terrible. I should remember someone I slept with. Especially this one. First girl to call me on my crap in a long time. And I gotta tell you, it’s kinda working.”
When Jake and Kylie spar, the series works, too. But not for long. Their story ends abruptly after the pilot’s last commercial break. As the credits roll, Jake is alone in a cab, leaving the news that Kylie hates him on Naomi’s voicemail (“Nice work, Cupid”). All those minutes invested, just to end up back where we started, with a charming if blurry lead, crowded into his stylish frame by three eccentric supporting types.
ABC would have better served Jake by saving this repurposed pilot for the DVD. As things are, Kylie’s final assessment just resounds as an “I told you so” in subsequent episodes. Turns out Jake really is a wheeler-dealer pretty boy, cursed with the kind of problems normal people only dream about. Propositioned by an actress he’s lusted after for years, he wrestles with whether to show her off at a rival agent’s birthday party as planned or have sex (there isn’t time for both). He opts for sex, and their tryst makes the tabloids anyway. Even when Jake loses, he wins. Do we care? He’s not quite a shark — he’s too goofy, too neurotic, too dimpled — which means we can’t take delight in his machinations. But neither is he likable. He’s just… Jake, a guy so lucky, so affable, it hurts to watch him.