The pilot of Bent premiered last night on NBC, and it gave me a teeny-tiny wave of deja vu that carried me back to watching another solidly mediocre NBC romantic comedy TV show. And like Free Agents, it would be my best guess that Bent is destined for cancellation sooner rather than later.
Granted, Free Agents’ over-jazzed slickness and failure to characterize its protagonists are not issues for Bent. Nope, the characterizations of Pete (David Walton) and Alex (Amanda Peet) are hammered in pretty hard: she’s an uptight lawyer from NorCal with a kid and an ex-husband in white collar prison; he’s a man-whoring, surfing contracter from SoCal who she hires to re-do her new Venice house. And Bent barely makes any effort to give its supporting characters anything to do - in the first two episodes, at least - which is a shame since they include J.B. Smoove and Jeffrey Tambor.
That leaves the show firmly centered on Pete and Alex, allowing them to do a LUDICROUS amount of flirting. Sure, it’s fun to watch them flirt. David Walton says words with l’s in them in a really cute way. But while their back-and-forth is clever and charming, it’s not exactly funny. And (as with Free Agents) so much weight is heaped on the will-they-won’t-they-just-kidding-they-obviously-will-so-it’s-only-a-matter-of-finding-inane-temporary-obstacles-to-their-coupling thing that it’s profoundly, fundamentally unsustainable.
There have been wonderful romances on TV before, and even stretched out through multiple seasons. But whether Ross and Rachel or Jim and Pam would get together was never the central question of their respective shows, nor were they the main source of comedy. These relationships were emotional anchors that tied the wackiness of the comedy to our known universe.
When the romantic relationship is the ONLY source of comedy, however, it’s forced to become so winky and witty that it loses any value as a realistic simulation of actual human behavior. Walton and Peet’s characters are just so cute and funny that it’s hard to believe either of them would have any difficulties or doubts about themselves and their mating decisions.
This kind of thing works in romantic comedy movies, because we go to the movies for an escape from real life (an escape, mind you, that wraps up its will-they-won’t-they in an hour and a half - or about as long as Bent will probably run before getting canceled). In contrast, we experience TV a) on a repeated, weekly basis and b) physically inside our own homes rather than in a dark theater. We’re justified in demanding some level of relatability in our television. And until someone figures out how to make a TV show that’s emotionally realistic and legitimately funny, we’re not going to get the romantic comedy series we want so bad.