The premise of Partners, which stars Martin Lawrence and Kelsey Grammer as antagonistic lawyers who begin working together, is broad, only encumbered by a smidge of relevant backstory and little in the way of overarching narratives. The familiar sitcom structure of the series, created by Robert Horn and Robert L. Boyett, has next to no strict narrative parameters for its stars to stick to, which provides an open atmosphere for their inventive, physical styles of humor, which elevated and often carried their ’90s sitcoms Martin and Frasier, respectively. So it comes as a mild surprise that Partners fails to summon the cursory amusements of even the worst episodes of those salad-day shows. Instead, Partners registers as a clear attempt to recreate the rigid, misogynistic timbre of Two and a Half Men and its ilk.
Set in Chicago, the series casts Lawrence’s Marcus Jackson as a liberal softy who’s about to lose 70% of his net worth to his unseen, nefarious ex and still finds time to do pro-bono work. That is, until Grammer’s Allen Braddock, the twice-married scoundrel scion to a hugely wealthy law dynasty, agrees to take on Marcus’s divorce case and subsequently joins his boutique law practice, complete with a quip-wielding gay assistant, Michael (Rory O’Malley), and a lunatic manager-investigator named Verushka (Edi Patterson). The show’s favored brand of humor is resolutely chauvinistic and retrograde, from Lawrence’s disgusted reaction to a kale smoothie to the sequences in which the duo attempts to avenge a botched “gwedding” (Michael’s slang for a gay wedding). It’s a show of archetypes, most of which are shamelessly rote and vacuously raunchy, though the creators clearly think that casting women exclusively as sassy mothers, shallow gold diggers, naïve virgins, or, well, psychopaths, not to mention indulging in mild homophobia, is all very “edgy.”
Partners is bad even by most lawyer-joke standards, and the writing’s falseness and laziness carries over to the performances. Neither Lawrence nor Grammer, two unique and talented comedians in their own right, seem more than passingly engaged with the material, always hitting their marks, but never with the sort of thoughtful, physically engaged delivery that made them famous. And there’s no sign whatsoever that the showrunners understand, let alone have any intentions of undermining, the deep derivativeness of their canned-laughter-fueled dude fest. There’s a palpable listlessness to every plot-driven interaction, whether it be Allen getting passive-aggressively blackmailed by his stepdaughter (McKaley Miller) or Marcus’s mother’s (Telma Hopkins) ceaseless debasements, all of which adds to the writers’ apparently unshakeable apathy toward defining these characters beyond simple, unchallenged caricatures. As a result, the humor feels inauthentic, and the series ultimately comes off as inept and cowardly in its “topical” crassness.