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TELEVISION REVIEW

Put this one on your list

October 03, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic
  • ?THE EX LIST?: Elizabeth Reaser stars as Bella Bloom.
?THE EX LIST?: Elizabeth Reaser stars as Bella Bloom. (Cliff Lipson / AP / CBS )

If you were so inclined by mood or personality type, you could easily find a few reasons to dislike "The Ex List," CBS' new hourlong dramedy that premieres tonight. Certainly it has an air of prepackaged perkiness that can be quite irritating.

The main character, for example, has her own flower shop and her name is, drumroll please, Bella Bloom. She lives in one of those adorable SoCal beach-adjacent bungalow courts, which are so difficult to find and impossible to afford, with three requisite good-looking roommates who spend an inordinate amount of time lounging together because they all really like each other and none of them seems to have a job. Or at least a job that requires anything resembling work.

But just because something's almost unforgivably cute ("Holy hottie, Batman" is an actual line) doesn't mean it can't also be very good and very funny, which "The Ex List" is. It may be more smile-heh-chuckle funny than belly-laugh funny, but still, it is an oasis in a parched comedic landscape.

The premise is certainly tantalizing (and lifted from an Israeli show called "The Mythological Ex"): While hosting her sister's bachelorette party, Bella (Elizabeth Reaser) encounters a psychic (Anne Bedian) who tells her that if she doesn't get married within a year, she never will. Oh, and Bella has already met, and broken up with, "the guy" in question. Spurred on by her wacky roommates -- Vivian (Alexandra Breckenridge), Vivian's boyfriend Augie (Adam Rothenberg) and comic third wheel Cyrus (Amir Talai) -- along with the accuracy of several less significant predictions, Bella decides to embrace the challenge. Hence, the ex list of the title.

In this age of Internet-spurred, old-flame hook-ups, it is a resonant scenario, and "What if . . ." has always been one of the more dangerous and comedic of human thoughts. The premise guarantees not only a new guy every week -- in the pilot it's "24's" Eric Balfour as tear-duct-challenged rocker Johnny Diamont -- but also a parade of amusingly doomed relationships that will wrap up in an hour.

Although confined a bit by the show's just-what-makes-that-little-old-ant optimism and all those lovely young people, Diane Ruggiero's script is smart and punchy, sweet without being sticky. But what makes this show so promising is the cast (also, the blessed absence of a voice-over).

As a lead, Reaser is absolutely the Real Deal. An Everywoman beauty with perfect comedic timing, she makes Bella neurotic enough that you completely understand why, at 33, she isn't married even though she really wants to be but also likable enough that you honestly want her to be happy. I don't want to invoke the great Carole Lombard, because in situations like this everyone goes to Carole Lombard, and who knows if Reaser can hold a big-screen blockbuster, but as Bella she certainly owns the small screen. Even when we first saw her as the facially reconstructed Ava/Rebecca in "Grey's Anatomy," it was clear she had star potential. (This with two names and a face so "Mask"-like you kept expecting Cher to show up in a special guest appearance.)

And she doesn't even have to carry the show alone. The roommates may have been cast on their ability to fit three-at-a-time in a toddler pool, but they fill characters that could easily be empty stereotypes -- Augie's been Bella's best male friend since college, Cyrus is chronically unemployed -- with enough humanity that their sitcom-y banter about things like a gross mole on Bella's back is fairly amusing.

As Vivian, Breckenridge performs the death-defying feat of using the always unappealing and now worked-to-death subject of genital grooming to elicit actual laughter. (Though very guilty laughter, because seriously, the genital grooming jokes must stop. The WGA needs to issue an edict or something.) Younger sister Daphne (Rachel Boston) serves as a likable foil for Bella, and Bedian's wiseacre psychic already cries out for a spinoff.

"Here's what you got right," she tells Bella between bites of Chinese food. "It's not all about you."

"It's not all about you." Now that's an ethos we haven't experienced since, say "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Writer and show runner Ruggiero has subsequently resigned, but it is to be hoped that this theme will still serve as the show's mantra.

Because, with the tube currently ruled by women who confuse feminist empowerment with permission to treat men badly, and men who equate maturity with impotence, the idea of a lead character learning that the world does not revolve around her because that would be a bad thing . . . well, that's not just a well-cast new dramedy on CBS. That, my friends, is a revolution.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'The Ex List'

Where: CBS

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)

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