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March 09, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

"Significant Others" is a sitcom rarity: fresh, familiar and milk-through-the-nose funny.

A frantic, disjointed look at three married couples in counseling (a fourth couple appears in Episode 5), "Significant Others" shuffles between their therapy sessions and the home scenes that provide the grist for the psychiatric mill. Like HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the improvised "Significant Others" exists somewhere between mockumentary and classic sitcom. The couples' (usually ridiculous) squabbles, their goofy private moments, all of their prosaic interactions, in fact, are instantly, gratifyingly recognizable.

The show strikes a perfectly calibrated balance between dialed-up realism and loopy absurdity without ever veering into unreality. It's one of the few comedies this year that feels like it was drawn from life rather than TV.

Produced by former CBS Entertainment President Peter Tortorici and director Rob R. Thomas, "Significant Others" relies on its talented cast to flesh out the three couples.

Brian Palermo and Andrea Savage play newlyweds James and Chelsea, who enter into a sort of preemptive therapy the controlling James hopes will "fix a few things" about Chelsea. An uptight financial analyst, James is shocked to learn that Chelsea has slept with more than 200 people (and that she's had "soul-mate" feelings for about 10 of them).

Eleanor (Faith Salie) is a tightly wound graduate student married to a freelance video game tester and man-child named Ethan (Herschel Bleefeld). They go into therapy after Eleanor discovers she is pregnant and Ethan's immediate reaction is one of profound -- and sustained -- disgust. Long-suffering Connie (played by a hilariously poker-faced Jane Edith Wilson) is an office worker with an unemployed husband, Bill (Fred Goss), and a sociopathic sister, Ginny (Mary Pat Dowhy). On the bright side, she also has a simmering, though entirely chaste, office flirtation going with a wad of nervous energy named Rick (Terry Rhoads), who initiates his love declaration by pointing to a flowery coffee mug on Connie's table and saying, "That's a pretty cup."

Coming in Episode 5 are Devon (Chris Spencer) and Alex (Nicole Randall Johnson), a couple of working parents who are using therapy to "check in" and make sure they don't have "issues."

The hand-held single-camera format adds to the show's immediacy and feeling of authenticity, as do the realistic sets. While there are elements of "reality" here -- the camera feels intrusive and lends a high-strung nervousness to the proceedings -- "Significant Others" has none of the reality genre's stilted, predictable structure.

In what is perhaps the biggest departure from the standard sitcom formula, "Significant Others" seems unconcerned with making the characters "likable" in the time-honored TV way. These people are neither adorably flawed nor altogether harmless. Like the Bluth family on Fox's hilarious "Arrested Development," the couples of "Significant Others" are impatient, pettily jealous, selfish, easily exasperated and always looking out for No. 1. They don't exist in a fluffy utopia of great hair and punch lines so much as they live in the real world.

So far, NBC Studios has produced six episodes of the show for Bravo, where it will remain for the time being. Whether the network's idea is to test the show on that smaller cable channel before anointing it with Must-See status, as it did with the unexpected hit "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," is unclear at this point. It would certainly be understandable if NBC felt nervous about programming yet another comedy featuring three attractive urban couples in their 30s. (The promotional photo for "Significant Others," which features the sextet, is at first chillingly reminiscent of the defunct "Coupling.")

The stealth approach might be the right one to take here, but the show's appeal feels universal enough for network.

But even if "Significant Others" remains on the smaller cable channel, NBC should feel confident that "Significant Others" is the kind of partner you can take anywhere.


`Significant Others'

Where: Bravo

When: Premieres 9-9:30 tonight, followed by second episode 9:30-10 p.m.

Brian Palermo...James

Andrea Savage...Chelsea

Faith Salie...Eleanor

Herschel Bleefeld...Ethan

Jane Edith Wilson...Constance

Fred Goss...Bill

Chris Spencer...Devon

Nicole Randall Johnson...Alex

Creator, director, Rob R. Thomas. Executive producers, Thomas, Peter Tortorici.

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