Young, neurotic and living in New York.
That was NBC's winning formula throughout the 1990s as it dominated the other networks and produced such popular - and sophisticated - sitcoms as Friends, Seinfeld, Mad About You and Caroline in the City. Desperate for a successor to Friends, the network tonight tries to squeeze one more hit out of the by-now well-worn premise with Committed. Instead, what emerges is a painful reminder of how few laughs there are in the NBC prime-time lineup.
While there are promising moments in Committed, overall its producers and writers are trying too hard to recapture the magic of sitcoms gone by. Their timidity and lack of originality comes just as other networks - think Fox and Arrested Development - are developing new comedic models.
Committed is centered upon the budding romantic relationship between Nate (Josh Cooke), a brilliant but phobic underachiever working in a used-record store, and Marni (Jennifer Finnigan), an occupational therapist with more than a few of her own quirks. He's obsessive-compulsive and certain of doom; she believes the sun always will shine tomorrow.
Nate, who comes across as part Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser) of Mad About You and part Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) of USA's Monk, scares off one potential partner with this ice-breaker on their first meeting: "I love babies. They're so innocent. They have no idea they'll be dead one day."
On his first dinner date with Marni, he becomes obsessed with a man standing in front of an emergency exit and shares his dark vision of what's going to happen to them when fire sweeps through the restaurant.
Marni, meanwhile, recycles Diane Keaton's Annie Hall (from Woody Allen's film of the same name) over and over in a high-pitched, aren't-I-precious, little girl's voice. When her dry cleaner, an elderly Russian immigrant, remarks that he met his wife "during a pogrom - as Cossacks torched the village," she replies, "Well, it's a lot harder now [to meet someone]. Seriously, Ivor, you have no idea how many strange guys there are out there."
Ten minutes into the pilot, the two characters start to feel overwrought both in the writing and performance. Nate's comment on babies and innocence would likely have left some viewers laughing if he had stopped after delivering the punch line. But the script then has him covering his eyes with his hands and saying "peek-a-boo, peek-a-boo" to an imaginary baby.
It is hard to say which is worse, the peek-a-boo dialogue and direction Cooke is given, or his lame delivery. But what's painfully clear is that less really would have made this so much more appealing a moment - and a sitcom.
Ditto for Marni giggling as she gives herself permission to order a drink at dinner by saying, "I keep forgetting, I'm off the medication now."
Nowhere is the strain of the producers trying to be off-beat funny felt more acutely than in their use of a supporting character identified in the pilot as a "dying clown." The character (Tom Poston), who lives in Marni's closet (as a condition of her sublet lease) has one line: "I think it's a little weird." He shouldn't have to say it.
Some of the best moments in the three episodes made available for screening belong to RonReaco Lee as Todd, a friend of Marni's who uses a wheelchair and who develops an intensely passive-aggressive relationship with Nate.
"Oh, I see you don't have wheelchair access. It's cool. It's cool. No worries. No worries. I'll just wait out here," he yells to Nate from the sidewalk outside the record store as it starts to storm. He asks if someone in the store would be kind enough to call out the names of some of the records available to him - were he able to get into the store and out of the deluge.
At such moments, one thinks that maybe Todd is one of the two young, neurotic New Yorkers who should have been at the center of Committed.
When: Tonight at 9:30
Where: WBAL (Channel 11)
In brief: NBC strains to rework the young, neurotic, New York sitcom formula.