I started out loathing the pilot of Best Friends Forever (NBC Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m.) and ended up liking it. This is a good sign. Created by Scott Armstrong (Party Down, Hangover 2), this laugh-track-free observational comedy about a woman, her boyfriend, and her closest female friend sharing a Brooklyn brownstone got on my bad side instantly. The show makes a cloistered, privileged life seem utterly normal, even cutesy-sweet*. But at the midway point, things get awkward, then borderline ugly. The smiley-face mask falls away, and stays off just long enough to confirm that it’s not quite what we thought. It’s a bit of a sucker punch, and I mean that as praise.
Lennon (Lennon Parham), who goes by “Len”, is settling into an eleven-month-old relationship with a video-game designer named Joe (Luka Jones of Upright Citizens Brigade) when her former roommate Jessica (Jessica St. Clair, Bridesmaids) gets dumped by her husband; Len invites Jessica to leave the West Coast and move back into the old place. I’d normally add the phrase “and complications ensue,” but what ensues feels less like complications than stand-up comedy bits repurposed as characterization. Len and Jessica have heart-to-heart talks, stay up late watching Steel Magnoilas, plan a “Lazy Sunday” party with a big spread, etc. Eventually Jessica’s snooping leads her into a comic misunderstanding vis-a-vis Len and Joe’s relationship. Joe, meanwhile, is a lovably schlubby man-child whose laid-back demeanor conflicts with the ladies’ peppy insularity; his distress at being displaced by Jessica mirrors Jessica’s fear that Len is totally invested in her new relationship and no longer has any use for her best friend. To some extent, I related to all of this material. But I had no use for the Mars versus Venus humor (Jessica and Len’s Steel Magnolias obsession versus Joe’s big-boobed video-game characters and hideous inflatable lounge chair), much less the constant stream of overlapping, pop-culture-laden chatter, liberally sprinkled with private in-jokes that are about as funny as real in-jokes would be if friends or lovers kept repeating them in front of you over and over, laughing hysterically. (Len and Joe’s scarily intense Braveheart bond is funny the first time we hear it, but not the third.)
But as it turns out, that’s all sort of the point. Not too many sitcoms contrast how the characters see themselves and how we see the characters. This one does. The show has a finely tuned ear for self-justifying, clueless bullshit. It strikes me as the kind of comedy that got a green light because network executives thought it accurately represented their own lives — bay windows; leafy streets; trips to the local Italian butcher shop (probably the last one in a gentrified neighborhood) to buy lamb shanks — but that might eventually sting them. At the start, Best Friends Forever reminded me of a de-angstified Seinfeld: observational relationship comedy made harmless. By the end, it reminded me just a little bit of Portlandia, or maybe Bored to Death minus the detective stuff. There are misjudged, even borderline offensive moments. I disliked the precocious African-American neighbor girl who recites pop lyrics as relationship advice, and I hated the butcher played by Mike Starr who has bright capped teeth and plays “That’s Life” in his store; both these characters teeter on the brink of stereotype and aren’t eccentric enough to pull back from the edge. But such missteps are balanced by bits that ring oddly true, such as Joe trying to join in the women’s Steel Magnolias fest by interjecting random factoids (“Wikipedia says it’s based on the author’s dying sister”). And there’s a realistically out-of-control argument in the middle that feels as though it were imported from a kitchen-sink drama, even though its end feels too reassuringly scripted. My favorite shows are ones that seem to be capable of almost anything. Best Friends Forever isn’t in that class yet — not by a long shot — but there’s a glint in its eye.
*The original version of this sentence said that the actresses did not write their own lines. They did.