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`The Class' takes a course through `Friends' country

The sitcom, assembling former schoolmates for fun and pairing off, may seem contrived, but it's in professional hands.

September 18, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

If I were David Crane and woke up every morning atop a growing mountain of residuals from having created "Friends," I would be lingering over a cafe creme on the Left Bank right now and not bringing the world another situation comedy. But I am not he, and the David Crane who is not I has found it worthwhile or amusing or perhaps even spiritually necessary to get back in that game: With Jeffrey Klarik ("Mad About You"), he's co-created "The Class," which like his previous creation is pitched to young white urbanites who want to see how they, or people sort of like them, might look refracted through three cameras and hooked up to a laugh track -- excuse me, I meant to say, a live studio audience.

Premiering tonight on CBS, "The Class" is, in certain respects, "Friends" inside-out. (In other respects, it is just "Friends.") Where the earlier show was about six people who lived in two rooms separated by the merest corridor and spent almost all their time together, "The Class" is about eight people -- upward! -- who do not live together, for the most part have not seen one another in many years and, even after the show begins, will not spend all their time together. Perhaps the most radical thing about "The Class" is that it is a sitcom without a primary set.

This is how it starts: Jason Ritter (late of "Joan of Arcadia") plays a Nice Fellow who wants to surprise his fiancee with a reunion of the third-grade class in which they first met. Seven of those classmates stick around after the party to become the cast of this show. Lucy Punch plays a local news reporter still smarting from learning, on her prom night, that old flame Sean Maguire ("Off Centre") is gay. (He learned the same night, so you can't really blame him, and she has since married the energetically flouncing Sam Harris -- of "Star Search" fame -- so you can blame her.) Jesse Tyler Ferguson (from the world of the Broadway musical) is on the verge of suicide when Ritter calls to invite him to the reunion. Jon Bernthal ("World Trade Center") is an aimless slacker still living with his mother; Andrea Anders is his old flame, now rich and married to an older, retired football star (played by David Keith). Heather Goldenhersh and Lizzy Caplan ("Mean Girls," but more important, she was Sara on "Freaks & Geeks") are arty and eccentric sisters, one sweet, the other sour.

It is a show, for twentysomethings, about nostalgia.

There are clear parallels to Crane's last series: Bernthal supplies the Matt LeBlanc hunky ethnicity; Ritter and Ferguson both contribute elements of the hangdog David Schwimmer; Anders is the Aniston-esque Golden Girl; Goldenhersh the kook, a la Lisa Kudrow; Maguire recapitulates some of the blandness of Matthew Perry. Why reinvent the wheel, when the wheel has worked so well for you before?

As with "Friends" the main questions are who will sleep with whom and when they'll get to it. (And like "Friends," "The Class" brings penis and diaphragm jokes into what used to be called, and still officially is, "the family hour.") Six out of the eight main characters are paired off as potential (or actual) partners by the end of the pilot. (The remaining two, Maguire and Punch, are also paired, though not romantically -- they just have stuff to work out.)

And yet the only really persuasive relationship that emerges -- the one that does not seem arbitrarily dictated by the producer-gods -- is that between sisters Goldenhersh and Caplan, perhaps because they're under no pressure to generate heat. (Just so, the Chandler-Joey dyad was the only "Friends" hookup I ever found remotely convincing.) Goldenhersh comes off as some odd cross between Susan Tyrell and Jennifer Tilly; it's a slightly annoying characterization at first that becomes more winning with time; it's the only part that doesn't feel written. (She's also the focus of a couple of good sight gags.) And Caplan's scenes with her are better than those with Ritter -- the scripts keep throwing her together with him, hoping to strike sparks -- because with Goldenhersh, acidity is just a form of affection.

Crane and Klarik have a lot of experience in this sort of thing, and director James Burrows has worked on every sitcom ever made; they would have to concentrate to produce something that couldn't generate a few laughs or a hint of pleasure. If "The Class" feels calculated, unrelated to life outside sitcoms, and encased in amber, it's a competent American product, ultimately, no harder to watch than, say, a Dodge is to drive.


`The Class'

Where: CBS

When: 8 tonight

Rating: To be announced

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