September 25, 2012

TV: Partners (CBS, Mon 8:30)

The creators of the new CBS sitcom Partners would very much like you to remember that they are the creators of Will & Grace. They would not so much like you to remember that they are also the creators of Shit My Dad Says. And given that the central characters in this show are a pair of architects who've been best friends since childhood, they'd also prefer that you not remember (not that anyone does) the 1995 Fox sitcom Partners, in which Jon Cryer and Tate Donovan played a pair of architects who've been best friends since childhood. (Weirdly enough, it aired in the same Monday 8:30 timeslot as the new show, and most episodes were, like this pilot, directed by James Burrows.)

There is, of course, one big difference between this new show and the Cryer-Donovan show: One of these partners is gay. He's Louis (Michael Urie); his straight pal is Joe (David Krumholtz). Their relationship, and their respective relationships with their domestic partners, are the focus of the show. Louis's boyfriend is Wyatt (Brandon Routh), a Mennonite nurse (why Mennonite? who  knows?); Louis is embarrassed that Wyatt is "only" a nurse, and tells everyone that he's actually a Jewish doctor. Joe's fiancee is Ali (Sophia Bush), who is not given much personality in the pilot beyond "hello, aren't I pretty."

There are two obvious problems with the show, one relatively minor and perhaps reparable, one more serious and potentially crippling. The minor problem is that Brandon Routh hasn't done a lot of comedy, and his timing is consistently off. That can be learned, at least to some extent, and the other three actors are good enough to carry and cover for him for a while.

The bigger problem is that Louis, as written, is loathesome. He's selfish, narcissistic, greedy, inconsiderate -- it's inexplicable why anyone would still be friends with him at all. The fault doesn't lie with Michael Urie, who is playing the hell out of what he's been given; the fault is with the writing.

And even beyond Louis, the writing is on the lazy side overall. The guys' Latina assistant is introduced with a bad West Side Story joke from Louis, to which she responds, "Gay gay gay, joke joke joke. I will cut you." Wyatt is currently working in the cardiac unit, apparently only so that he can wear a heart pin and make repeated jokes about "having a heart on."

There are good things here. Krumholtz is charming and immensely likable; Bush isn't going to win any Emmys, but she's better than a lot of actresses in similar "the girl" roles. Despite Routh's comic clunkiness, he is a warm and charismatic presence; and Urie is working so hard that you sometimes laugh at his loathesomeness despite yourself.

If (and I fear that this is a very big if) the writers can tone Louis down a notch, can bring his self-absorption down to the point where it's less cruel and more amusing -- to make the obvious comparison, if they can bring him down to the level of Will & Grace's Jack -- the show could be a perfectly fine sitcom. It's utterly conventional (and it is, I suppose, a sign of social progress that I can say that about a show with a gay couple among its characters), and is never going to break any new ground, but it could last a few years. If Louis remains as horrifying as he is, though, this won't be back for year two.

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