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TV review: 'Traffic Light'

Fox has a promising new series on its hands with this sharply written and well-acted sitcom about former college buddies who have maintained their friendship into their 30s.

February 08, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

In the good news/bad news category, the pilot for Fox's new romantic situation comedy "Traffic Light" is not great, but it is the weakest of the four episodes sent to critics. The fact that the network offered up four episodes is a good indication that Fox executives believe "Traffic Light" gets better, that it will grow on the audience, and they hope critics will alert their readers accordingly.

So consider yourselves alerted. "Traffic Light," like that old Mustang you had in college, splutters more than a bit when you turn the key, but eventually it gets going. And once it does, the splendid refinishing of a classic makes the inevitable bumps much more easily endured.

Although based on an Israeli show by the same name with original creator Adir Miller serving, along with Bob Fisher, as executive producer, "Traffic Light" is eminently American. If "Friends" had a beer-goggled hookup with "Men of a Certain Age," something like "Traffic Light" might be the outcome: A trio of Old College Buddies remain tight into their 30s despite the sort of divergent life choices upon which sitcoms thrive.

There's Mike (David Denman), a former jock now married to the loving but no-nonsense Lisa (Liza Lapira) and struggling with the burdens of new parenthood; Adam (Nelson Franklin), who has just this very minute moved in with his girlfriend Callie (Aya Cash), and finally, because no show involving men is complete without the Playboy of the Western World, Ethan (Kris Marshall), whose only real attachment is to his bulldog, Carl. (Marshall, who is British, played a character in "Love, Actually" who comes to the United States because he believes American women are sexually susceptible to the accent; he is proved right there and here.)

The pilot makes a big deal out of Ben, a fourth college musketeer who died young. But as none of the subsequent episodes make any mention of Ben, perhaps we should just write him off as the "Big Chill" hook of the pitch meeting.

With such a cast of characters, not to mention a narrative format that relies heavily on conference-call car conversations between the three men, "Traffic Light" could easily collapse under its own weight. That it doesn't simply proves what viewers have known for years — nothing matters more to a television show than sharp writing (Fisher co-wrote "Wedding Crashers") and good acting, both of which "Traffic Light" has in abundance.

Although they are introduced as graduates of the Judd Apatow Center for Gender Studies, the three male stars are quite believable as old college chums. In the pilot, Mike may park three blocks away from his house after work to avoid "the second shift," while Adam mumbles commitment-phobic dialogue, but by the second and third episodes they are behaving more like adults.

Funny adults, but adults, who might even actually have learned a little something from the early death of a friend. It helps a great deal that the women are not imports from the land of misogynist stereotypes. Lisa is a working mom who could have easily have been the She Grizzly of the tale, but instead she is as sweet as she is sassy, and Lapira and Denman quickly settle into the kind of quick and easy banter we haven't seen since "Mad About You." Likewise, Callie, though set up to be Adam's ball 'n' chain, quickly becomes her own person, and not just in terms of the relationship, while Carl, being a bulldog, is certifiably fabulous.

In many ways, a weak pilot is better than a slam-bam terrific one — slam-bam terrific is hard to maintain while with so-so there's a good chance the show will improve and then find its balance. Which is precisely what one wants from a sitcom and what "Traffic Light" gives every indication of doing.

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