Boring Protagonist Syndrome (BPS) is afflicting more and more television shows every day. It can happen at any time, almost without warning. You could be watching an episode of Mad Men when you realize that, even as crucial secrets about Don Draper are being revealed before your eyes, all you can think about is Joan Holloway playing the accordion. Or maybe you’re watching How I Met Your Mother, and you can’t for the life of you figure out why the show keeps cutting away from the more delightfully smarmy exploits of Neil Patrick Harris’s character to relate the insufferable milquetoast ditherings of the show’s main protagonist voiced by Bob Saget. With the debut of CBS’s new sitcom, Mad Love, BPS has officially become an epidemic.
Mad Love is, improbably enough, a story about how easy it is to find love in Manhattan. At the start of the pilot, Ben Parr (Jason Biggs) stumbles off an elevator at the top of the Empire State Building and, one misplaced Blackberry later, he’s met the love of his life in the form of Kate Swanson (Sarah Chalke). It used to be that you had to spend a couple of weeks on talk radio before you met the love of your life on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Times have changed, I guess.
Biggs, who stole America’s heart by getting intimate with a pastry in American Pie, is pleasant enough, and Chalke tries her best to recapture the psychotic charm of her character from Scrubs. But the half-hearted slapstick scenarios that are meant to animate their characters only draw attention to how much the show feels like a collegiate improv skit that isn’t going very well. Two perfectly good neurotics wasted by BPS.
The fly in the sugar-free Jell-O of the Ben and Kate story is that their best friends can’t stand each other. Played by Tyler Labine with something approximating the flatulent exuberance of Jack Black, Ben’s best bud Larry is a roiling cauldron of safe-for-primetime masturbation jokes and misogyny. And Kate’s childhood pal Connie is all Type-A sarcasm; it’s a role that would have been played by Bonnie Hunt 20 years ago, but today it goes to the great Judy Greer (you might recall her as George Senior’s secretary/lover from Arrested Development—may it rest in peace). Greer, like Labine, bites into her one-liners with a skill that would be exhilarating if it wasn’t so shot through with the melancholy of a slumming actress on a sinking ship. The two bicker and prod in such a way that it’s clear they’ll be in love within seven episodes, but all the same, it’s only their tension that appears to be of interest to Mad Love‘s writers.
Boring characters can often happen organically, but it’s troubling to see a show that has built them into its very architecture. Seeking to replicate the success of sweet-n’-sour sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, Will and Grace, and the BBC’s Gavin and Stacey, Mad Love never seems invested in its main characters, and so we, as viewers, are absolved of any investment as well. The fatal flaw, however, is that the obvious hierarchy of plotlines doesn’t correspond to a similar distribution of quality-television writing. Harris’s Barney on How I Met Your Mother is so engaging in part because he gets all the best lines. Unfortunately, there are no good lines on Mad Love for anybody. And Labine and Greer visibly strain under the pressure of every underwritten scene they’re ostensibly supposed to steal.
That said, Mad Love‘s producers have the advantage of a quartet of good, even excellent, television actors at their disposal, and creator Matt Tarses could take some helpful lessons from the almost identically plotted Gavin and Stacey. On that show, rather than submitting audiences to a painfully irritating will-they-or-won’t-they plot, the two head-over-heels leads’ loathsome besties hooked up right away. Indeed, though Gavin and Stacey is only marginally more watchable, its graphic, unapologetic, and very British sexuality was one of the things that saved it from BPS oblivion. This may be a hard order to fill for Monday nights on CBS, but Mad Love desperately needs to manufacture some kind of chemistry for its actors. As it is, the main romantic relationship seems unearned, and the Connie/Larry subplot feels contrived thus far.
The other engrossing element of Gavin and Stacey was its—again, very British—class politics. The leads were in love, but bridging the gap between England and Wales provided a lot of opportunity for both conflict and hilarity. There’s no such thing as class, sex, or race on Mad Love (though an African American elevator operator has appeared in two episodes, presumably because he thought he was on the set of Mad Men). And while writing can be improved, and BPS can be remedied, there are some epidemics that are apparently incurable.