Giving Mad Love a Fair Chance

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Early on in last week’s episode of Mad Love, “Baby, You Can Drive My Car,” Judy Greer, Martin Starr, and Sarah Chalke, three key members of four of the better sitcoms — Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, Party Down, and Scrubs — of the past 20 years, all appear in the same scene. Later in the episode, Tyler Labine, co-star of the underappreciated Reaper, and SNL/30 Rock’s Chris Parnell share a moment.

With such a great cast, Jason Biggs excluded, Mad Love ought to be so much better than it is, but like Perfect Couples, Sit Down, Shut Up, and Twenty Good Years, the talent is mostly squandered by clichéd plots and a fear of trying anything different. It’s just the latest example of When Mediocre Sitcoms Happen to Good Comedians.

It’s not even that Mad Love is a particularly bad show; it’s just that it doesn’t take enough, or really any, risks to be anything other than mediocre. Just like when NBC grew obsessed with mimicking the Friends formula, CBS has now done the same thing with attempting to replicate the success of How I Met Your Mother, the only sitcom on the network that’s both critically and commercially successful, with Mad Love, which literally follows How I Met on the broadcast schedule.

The similarities between the two shows are uncanny: they hang out in a “New York City” pub that looks exactly like MacLaren’s, with the only difference being that the bar is on the left side of the screen, not the right; Biggs looks, speaks, narrates, and even excitedly moves like Ted Mosby; and one character, Labine’s Larry Munsch, is a lawyer (like Marshall) and has strict guidelines on dating and how to live your life (like Barney).

Biggs and Chalke, who play Ben and Connie, have a relationship like the one Ted and Robin had in the early days of How I Met, sparked by a red cell phone instead of a blue French horn. “Baby,” the show’s seventh episode, has the two, while on a road trip to sell Ben’s car, saying they love one another for the first time, and I can’t help but wonder if they’ve showed their hand a little too soon. How I Met stumbled a bit when Ted and Robin were together, and if Mad Love breaks the two up, the comparison will become even more apt.

The show’s other two stars, Greer and Labine, play the sarcastic best friend, Connie, and the CBS version of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie, Larry. They constantly bicker and are disgusted with one another on the show, which inevitably means they’ll eventually fall in love, too. They’re both actors known for their scene-stealing abilities (particularly Greer, who’s Kitty Sanchez is one of Arrested’s most memorable characters), and they continue to showcase their unique talent here. The two have nice comic timing (Connie walks in on Larry bathing in a tub, and says, “If there was a toaster in here, you’d be a dead man,” to which he responds, “If there was a toaster in here, I’d be enjoying a Pop-Tart”), and I wish they were the show’s unconventional leads, just to try something different. But as it is, they do exactly what the wacky sidekicks should do: distract you from the boring leads.

Because man, are they dreadfully uninteresting. Biggs, of American Pie fame, still seems like a teenager trying to act like an adult, and Chalke, who I’ve liked ever since she appeared on Roseanne as the second Becky (I’m probably in the minority there), is once again playing Stella, a main reason for How I Met’s mid-series rut. Put them together, which the show has, and you’ve got a relationship with no emotional attachment from the audience, other than a fondness for their previous work on other shows.

That’s really Mad Love in a nutshell: even with such a quality cast, it’s neither particularly good nor memorably bad because it’s latching itself to the coattails of far more successful sitcoms, tweaking itself just enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s doing so, but not enough that it feels fresh, either.

It’s almost feels too easy comparing Mad Love to How I Met Your Mother, but when the similarities are so striking, and they’re not from the same show runner (like Family Guy and American Dad!), it’s impossible not to bring it up. Besides, to speak in terms Marshall and Ted (and therefore, Ben and Larry) can understand: why watch The Phantom Menace when you’ve got The Empire Strikes Back at your disposal?

Josh Kurp can’t wait for American Reunion.