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On prime-time TV, a return to romance

Love, love/hate, bromance and other romantic entanglements are finding a home on the small screen. 'Perfect Couples,' 'Traffic Light' and 'Mad Love' are among the offerings.

February 28, 2011|By T. L. Stanley, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Kyle Bornheimer, left, David Walton and Christine Woods star in "Perfect Couples."
Kyle Bornheimer, left, David Walton and Christine Woods star in "Perfect… (Paul Drinkwater, NBC )

There will be no references to sugar daddies or the old ball and chain, no husband will call his wife a battle-ax and not a single woman will pummel her significant other, cartoon-style, with a rolling pin.

Instead, the wave of romantic comedies coming to TV this spring will offer up men who read relationship self-help books and never forget an anniversary, women who hog the bed and compete like demons, and couples who talk ceaselessly about meeting each others' needs.

Sound more like real life? Or less? That will be for audiences to decide as the small screen sprouts love, love/hate, bromance and other coupling configurations at nearly every turn. The rollout has already started: "Perfect Couples," about three couples whose relationships vary wildly from sedate to salacious, joined a new NBC all-comedy lineup in January, while Fox's "Traffic Light" and CBS' "Mad Love" premiered earlier this month, and ABC's "Happy Endings" begins airing April 13.

But wait, there's more. At a time when it's tough to make this genre work, even in big-budget feature films (star-studded "How Do You Know" flopped at the holidays, as did a few much-hyped Katherine Heigl flicks last year), the small screen has rom-coms on deck that include anthology series "Love Bites," created by "Sex and the City" alum Cindy Chupack; and "Friends With Benefits," from lauded filmmaker and TV vet Brian Grazer, both awaiting spots on NBC's schedule. And even a former rom-com king, "Mad About You" costar Paul Reiser, may return to TV with a sitcom he's writing for NBC about his own married life.

ABC also has a few love-themed shows in development. "Man Up" follows three best friends and the women in their lives, and "Smothered" centers on a young couple with a toddler and wacky in-laws.

Matt Tarses, executive producer of "Mad Love," said networks are rife with popular workplace and family comedies so it seemed fitting to return to romance, which had a heyday in the '90s and early '00s thanks to shows like "Friends" but hasn't been as much in vogue lately.

The time was right to do a sweet rom-com, Tarses said, because TV shows with heart seem to be striking a chord with viewers, a la ABC's "Modern Family." That atmosphere encouraged him to give his series a dose of sentimentality, though he admits to having ambiguous feelings about rom-coms in general.

"I'm drawn to them, but then I hate myself for being drawn to them," he said. "I could never write a straight-ahead love story like 'Sleepless in Seattle.' "

The hook for "Mad Love" is that one couple, played by Sarah Chalke and Jason Biggs, are in the gooey first phases of love while their jaded besties (Tyler Labine and Judy Greer) fall instantly in hate. Tarses isn't coy about the "Much Ado About Nothing" overtones, saying he's often found the secondary characters in rom-coms more intriguing than the primary ones.

"They seem like an unromantic couple, but they might not turn out to be," Tarses said. "No matter how sarcastic people are, they still want love. Maybe they're just not very idealistic about it."

He means that about both his characters and the potential viewing audience.

The creators of "Traffic Light" similarly said they're trying to illuminate relatable moments to draw in today's viewers. Executive producer Bob Fisher said he'd found a lot of traditional TV romances to be either cynical or "willfully cute, with a lot of high jinks."

"Our goal was to not be glib," said Fisher, who co-wrote the blockbuster "Wedding Crashers. "We wanted to get into salty, uncomfortable truths while still saying that relationships are worth having."

He and fellow executive producer David Hemingson also tried to steer clear of the old tropes and gender stereotypes that can border on the absurd.

"We're aiming for a sense of realism, where the characters sound like people we know going through life stages we recognize," Hemingson said. "It's not, 'Women be shoppin', men be drinkin' beer.' "

To keep their feet on the ground, they "shamelessly exploited the lives of the writers," Hemingson said, farming lots of embarrassing bits. The cast includes alums of the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, who've been encouraged to use their improv skills to make the show more spontaneous.

"Happy Endings," with a premise that turns the typical Hollywood denouement on its head, may be the anti-rom-com of the group, at least on its face. It opens with a bride-to-be ("24's" Elisha Cuthbert) leaving her groom at the altar and running off with another man.

"I wanted to start with the last scene of 'The Graduate,' " said David Caspe, creator and co-executive producer. "I always thought it would be interesting to look at how close friends deal with a big implosion like that."

The show is as much about the lives of six diverse individuals and the aftermath of the runaway bride as it is their intimate relationships. And Caspe said he purposely tried to allow some rough-around-the-edges moments where "people don't break out into well-written poetry."

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said TV fans seem to have a newfound appetite for half-hour comedy lately, but the formula for a hit rom-com is elusive. If a show is to succeed, it probably needs a mix of realism and escapism.

"Most of us don't want to be reminded about all the true, really difficult parts of courtship, the warts and all, but we don't want to see a complete fabrication of the way things really are, either," he said. "In between, there's some really salable stuff."

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