For months, Bravo has been circulating self-congratulatory buzz about its new laugh-track-free, improvisational sitcom Significant Others. According to network president Jeff Gaspin, it's "the kind of comedy you'd expect to find on Bravo, where edginess and creativity thrive. We feel this series is funny, relatable, and it is groundbreaking television that exemplifies the artistic freedom granted by this medium." Right on, Prez. Except that for all the crowing about formal inventiveness, Significant Others ultimately relies on the hoariest of sitcom formulas: two people trading insults on a couch.
The series, which debuted in two back-to-back half-hour episodes last night, follows three fictional L.A. couples through the life crises that have led them into marriage counseling. Connie (played by Jane Edith Wilson) is a prim, humorless woman whose husband Bill (Fred Goss) has been in midlife freefall since losing his job six weeks ago. Chelsea (Andrea Savage) and James (Brian Palermo) are newlyweds just beginning to discover that her free-spirited approach to life clashes with his buttoned-down rigidity. And Ethan (Herschel Bleefeld) is a slacker man-boy who fancies himself a songwriter and reacts to his scholarly wife Eleanor's (Faith Salie) pregnancy by regressing even further into his callow cocoon. (A fourth, African-American couple played by Chris Spencer and Nicole Randall Johnson, is featured prominently in the PR kit and on the Web site, but has yet to appear after three episodes, in a bizarre bit of multicultural bait-and-switch.)
Like HBO's cult hit Curb Your Enthusiasm, Significant Others is loosely scripted by a team of writers, with the talented actors (many of them veterans of troupes like the Groundlings) supplying the dialogue on-set. But unlike Curb, an absurdist spoof of Hollywood manners structured around the abrasive yet curiously appealing presence of creator Larry David, Significant Others lacks the ingredient crucial for successful satire: heart. David and his cohorts are funny because, in spite of their incessant kvetching and transparently self-serving antics, we care about them and, by extension, their silly, low-stakes struggles. The shrill, vacuous denizens of Significant Others' curiously depopulated L.A. manage to perform the same trick in reverse: They take the high-stakes issues of real-life cohabitation—infidelity, childbirth, depression—and drain them of significance. An example: After squeezing several scenes out of Ethan's queasiness at his wife's new pregnancy, the show resorts to a gross-out gag at the Ob-gyn's office, where a woman's water breaks, drenching the horrified Ethan's brand-new sneakers. It's as if we're supposed to think, simultaneously, "Ethan is insensitive to the wonders of the female body!" and "Yuck! Baby juice!"
The couples-therapy scenes, where each couple talks directly into the camera as if addressing an off-screen analyst, offer the most promising framework for the actors to ad-lib and explore. After all, the free associations and awkward silences of real-life therapy are similar to onstage improv. But by jump-cutting between punch lines and editing out the interstitial material, director Robert Roy Thomas (who also co-created the show) breaks whatever improvisational rhythm the performers have established. The therapy scenes thus become manic, herky-jerky montages that showcase the characters' vanity and petty lies, while hastily eliding the real emotions—anger, resentment, a desire to connect—that would make these self-deceptions both funny and moving. Thomas came up with the idea for the series while directing commercials, where, as he explains in an interview, "the cameras would stop and the actors would be goofing around, saying things in character, and it would be funny and everyone would leap on it." Unfortunately, the stock domestic situations the show's writers have created for the gamely mugging cast seldom rise above the level of TV-commercial conflict: Leggo my Eggo, honey!
Significant Others' cheap, cynical misanthropy left me despairing less for the ailing genre of the sitcom than for the institution of marriage itself, which seems infinitely less threatened by the prospect of expanding to include same-sex partners than by the heterosexual self-loathing documented, and possibly engendered, by shows like this. Maybe marriage, like the sitcom, really is over as we know it. If shows like Significant Others represent the dying gasps of both, here's to whatever comes next.