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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2010-2011 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS (NBC)
(written by Michael H. Weber & Scott Neustadter; directed by David Dobkin; TRT: 25:10)
The network's description: "From Oscar and Emmy winner Brian Grazer ("A Beautiful Mind," "Arrested Development"), "Friends With Benefits" is a half-hour comedy revolving around a group of twenty-something singles as they navigate the difficult, and often confusing, world of dating. Ben Weymouth (Ryan Hansen, "Party Down") is on the hunt for the perfect woman who meets his unique set of standards, while his best friend, Sara Maxwell (Danneel Harris, "One Tree Hill"), is just looking for a man to settle down with and raise a family. Ben and Sara have fallen into the habit of turning to each other for moral and physical support as they wait for Mr. and Ms. Right to arrive.
Their friend Aaron (Fran Kranz, "Dollhouse"), a romantic at heart, doesn't approve of Ben and Sara's complicated friendship, but he, along with womanizer Hoon (Ian Reed Kesler) and straight shooter Riley (Jessica Lucas, "Cloverfield"), are all distracted with their own dating trials and tribulations. David Nevins ("Lie to Me," "Arrested Development") joins Grazer as executive producer for Imagine Television. Also serving as executive producers are David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers"), who directs the pilot, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ("(500) Days of Summer"), and Jeff Kleeman. "Friends With Benefits" is a production of 20th Century Fox Television, Imagine Television and Big Kid Pictures."
What did they leave out? Fran Kranz and Ian Reed Kesler are both out as their roles are being recast. Plus Patrick J. Adams was originally cast as Ben, before being replaced by Ryan Hansen.
The plot in a nutshell: It's a typical Friday evening in Chicago for pals Ben (Ryan Hansen) and Sara (Danneel Harris): meaningless sex followed by a recap of their respective dating foibles. Sara's latest date with Rich (Tug Coker) ended with her picking up the check, while Ben's didn't like "Top Chef." As you might guess, they each have very different perspectives on dating: Sara's worried about pushing 30 without being married and a kid on the way, Ben's obsessed with making sure his future bride meets every possible criteria. They themselves never dated as their friendship - wait for it - with benefits proved to be a more manageable status quo. Sure it's not without its complications - each finds they want to lean on the other for boy/girlfriendish-esque duties when certain needs arise (a date for a Ben's sister's wedding, helping Sara move, etc.) - but it works nonetheless.
As for their friends without benefits, Aaron (Fran Kranz), an internet millionaire, is supportive of Ben's picky nature but mystified by his relationship with Sara, while unrepentant womanizer/personal trainer Hoon (Ian Reed Kesler, essentially picking up where his "The Loop" character left off) conversely gets Ben's extracurricular activities with Sara but is bewildered by his pickiness ("Can you have sex with her sense of humor? I rest my case"). You see, Aaron's always falling in love a little too fast, a trait that tends to scare off the women he dates. Hoon then, due to his uncensored forwardness, either repulses or intrigues the women he approaches. Also along for the ride is pretenseless Riley (Jessica Lucas) who bartends at the gang's favorite haunt. And so Ben and Sara attempt to climb their respective hills: Sara tries to make things work with Rich while Ben tries to find an acceptable date for his sister's wedding.
What works: The bulk of the characters are more or less likeable and it's been a while since we've had a true twentysomethings-dating show...
What doesn't: ...I just wish it was actually funny. Kesler's Hoon, to the show's credit, launches a handful of colorful, cringe-inducing bombs (Hoon: "I've got the perfect girl for you: she's double jointed... in her jaw."; Riley: "Hoon look away or I will punch you in the balls." Hoon: "You'd still be touching them."; Hoon: "Bang her in your car Hoon style." Ben: "What's Hoon style?" Hoon: "Sauce on the side.") but they are firecrackers amongst deafening silence. Ben and Sara's dating hijinks are eye-rollingly bland (one of Ben's dates doesn't like "Caddyshack," another is a bad kisser, the horror!) as "Benefits" in general doesn't add anything new to the genre, aside from the well-worn concept that men and women can have sex under the pretense of not getting attached.
It's particularly disappointing considering the show's pedigree - Neustadter and Weber's "(500) Days of Summer" was a wonderfully insightful look into modern dating life while this, this most definitely is not. Ben learning he shouldn't be so picky and Sara learning she shouldn't be so desperate are about the most pedestrian lessons you could ask for. Again it would help if it was funny as laughs covert all warts and hide all seams. The supporting cast likewise isn't given much to do: Riley and Hoon essentially just orbit the action while Aaron spirals down the Mikey-phone-call-from-"Swingers" staircase of trying too hard. And last, but not least, the Chicago boy in me would be remised not to mention the glaring error that the Chicago Theatre is a performing arts venue, not an actual movie theatre.
The bottom line: Not necessarily bad, just not funny.