David Kohan and Max Mutchnick had a huge hit in the 90s with Will & Grace – a then-groundbreaking sitcom about a straight woman, her gay best friend and their goofy sidekicks. Kohan and Mutchnick return with their new CBS sitcom Partners that patterns itself very closely to Will & Grace – a straight man, Joe (David Krumholtz) and his gay best friend, Lewis (Michael Urie). Joe’s engaged to jewelry designer, Ali (Sophia Bush), and Lewis is partnered with hunky, but slightly dim nurse, Wyatt (former Superman Brandon Roth).
The pilot introduces the viewers to the weird codependant relationship between the two main characters. It opens with them as children, playing and building a house out of Lego, and kvetching – setting the stage for the nature of their relationship, both personal and professional: Lewis and Joe work at an architectural firm together.
One thing that struck me immediately is how old-fashioned this show is – it’s something that would feel more at home at TV Land than network television: there are punchlines, an uproarious laugh track, and manic, quick-shot editing tricks to segue into scenes – there’s even an opening credit sequence with a nifty, catchy theme song.
Also, it seems like the creators are stuck in their Will & Grace days: the jokes are all holdovers from that show: snappy gay jokes that are supposed to feel very cutting edge and stylish, but now start to feel a bit stale (it’s a sign of progress that being gay isn’t enough to be interesting anymore on TV). Also, Kohan and Mutchnick have a fondness for a vaguely urban-Jewish, slightly Borscht Belt humor, which doesn’t come naturally to Urie (he struggles with some of the writing that has him tossing off Yiddish or slipping into Brooklynese delivery – also, his obsession with wanting his goyim nurse boyfriend to be a Jewish doctor is a joke that’s gotten pretty dusty at this point).
In fact, Urie seems to be a sore point for the show, which is a shame, because he’s a charming and funny actor, who stole his scenes when playing Marc St. James, Vanessa Williams’ minion on Ugly Betty. On that show, the writers took full advantage of his long-limbed lankiness and rubbery facial features, and he was a comic tornado. On Partners, he’s not only saddled with some pretty lame material, but he’s caught in an impossible role: it feels like the writers weren’t sure to make him Marc again, or to make him Jack McFarland from Will & Grace – in fact, the ghost of Jack (and its performer, Sean Hayes) looms over everything Urie does: so no matter how hard he tries (and his performance feels like an effort – I can almost see the beads of sweat), he can’t seem to shake off the mediocrity of the writing. So as a result, Urie’s manic performance appears forced – and his performance comes off as creaky sitcom mugging.
On the other hand, Kohan and Mutchnick scored minor points with the casting of Krumholtz, who appears far more comfortable in this role. Sure, he’s playing a nebbish, and we’ve seen this kind of thing before, but the actor has a great sense of timing, and manages to lift his scenes, despite some of the leaden jokes and humor, that’s piled on his shoulders. He glides through Partners with a feel of ease and is very natural. Hopefully, as the season progresses, he’ll get better material that matches his performance.
As the better halves, Bush and Roth aren’t all that distinct – but this could also be because it’s just the pilot, and the audience is getting to know them. Bush is an appealing presence, though, she’s in slight danger of becoming the unappealing scold – a role that women play far too much in sitcoms or romantic comedies; Roth meanwhile is made to play Wyatt as a bit of a dumb dumb – sweet, but not a sharp tac, and the actor’s blandness seems to fit the almost-disappearing comic presence of the character (he gets one gag for the show, and it’s him cluelessly punning when talking about having a “heart on” – when wearing a heart-shaped pin…I mean, this is the kind of writing we’re dealing with).
The plot of the pilot has Joe deal with his growing feelings for Ali and their relationship, which is briefly imperiled by the rash actions of Lewis, which threaten to break the two up; it’s pretty standard, Three’s Company style of farce that relies on a comedy of errors. Of course, there is a resolution, and it’s not a spoiler to say that it’s a pat and happy one, that elicits a syrupy awwww from the engaged studio audience.
I hate saying this, but I don’t think Partners has a place on network television right now – TV sitcoms for the most part have moved away from the yuck-yuck style that Kohan and Mutchnick mastered over (seriously, each time an actor lands a punchline, I’m expecting a rim shot); the show rests too much on its straight guy-gay guy theme, which doesn’t seem all that interesting anymore – hopefully, the writers will see to that, and write more interesting adventures for the pair (and hopefully, they’ll let poor Urie take a breather once in a while from his manic, whirling dirvish act), that rely more on character development, than this one-joke premise of Joe and Lewis being a bromantic couple that got stretched too thin in the first 10 minutes of the pilot. Hidden deep, deep, deeeep, in the pilot is a kernal of a decent show – let’s see if it’ll be shown.