In light of the news that NBC’s long-delayed Friends with Benefits is set to premiere on June 25th, I think it’s an appropriate time to take a look back at what has arguably been this season’s most common genre of new comedies: the relationship sitcom. Not counting Friends with Benefits, no fewer than 5 sitcoms about people in various stages of their romantic lives debuted on American network television: Perfect Couples, Traffic Light, Happy Endings, Better with You, and Mad Love. I never watched those last two; both were multi-camera sitcoms that I had very little interest in watching. But I did watch all of Perfect Couples and Traffic Light, and I’ve seen all of Happy Endings that has aired so far.

Whether the glut of these shows was caused by simple coincidence or by a prevailing false belief among network execs that such sitcoms would be wildly popular, we’ll never know. What we do know is that all 5 of those comedies were critically panned, and all but one was them was cancelled. The sole survivor: Happy Endings.

At first glance, there’s not much that differentiates Happy Endings from Traffic Light or Perfect Couples. All are single camera sitcoms. All of them feature a young, attractive cast. None of them were initially well-received by critics for the simple fact that they weren’t very funny or unique. Following their debuts, Traffic Light and Perfect Couples were largely ignored in critical circles. But then, a curious thing happened: Happy Endings began gaining steam. Despite critics’ complaints, viewers received it well. Soon, some critics were revising their original assessments of the show.

So, what set Happy Endings apart from the others? Perfect Couples was funnier, and Traffic Light had a better vibe. What made Happy Endings so special? Why is it sticking around for another season?

  • The cast. Damon Wayans Jr. is excellent as Brad, and Eliza Coupe is also great as his wife, Jane. Casey Wilson brings an infectious energy to the role of Penny, and Adam Pally somehow makes his douchey slacker character, Max, likable. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to think of Elisha Cuthbert as anything but the former co-host of Popular Mechanics for Kids, but she does well as Alex. The only sort of weak link in the cast is Zachary Knighton, who plays Dave, and even he’s far from bad.
  • The chemistry. While the individual actors are all quite good, what sets the cast apart as a whole is their ability to play off each other. Subtle touches like nodding heads or chuckling at other characters’ jokes are what make these people seem like a real group of friends.
  • The premise. Traffic Light and Perfect Couples suffered from not having a hook to grab viewers. But Happy Endings has an actual story behind it: Alex got cold feet at her wedding to Dave. Their group of six friends now has to deal with the fallout.
  • The storytelling. Even with its episodes aired totally out of order, Happy Endings has shown a commitment to serialization that Perfect Couples never really did and that Traffic Light only did halfheartedly. It also has a penchant for world-building. After a few episodes, viewers have a sense of the show’s major locations: the bar; Max and Dave’s apartment; and Alex’s store.
  • The characters. Some viewers have taken a liking to Jane’s type-A insanity. Others enjoy Brad’s debonair demeanour or Penny’s energy. But people really seem to love Max as the gay guy who defies gay stereotypes. He’s certainly a rare kind of character in American comedies.
  • The dialogue. It’s fast-paced and quick-witted. It’s also loaded with pop culture references.
  • The potential. Even keeping in mind that it aired in the dreaded 10 PM slot, the show’s ratings were abysmal. However, Happy Endings isn’t difficult to get into, and it has a lot of support from fans. The show might do better in a different time slot, and ABC is giving the show the chance to prove itself next season behind mega-hit Modern Family. Clearly, ABC doesn’t have the next Friends on its hands, but the show could develop a large, loyal following if exposed to a wider audience.

In truth, I didn’t have any special preference for Happy Endings over Perfect Couples or Traffic Light. But who am I to argue with the American viewing public? For whatever reason, Happy Endings is here to stick around for another season, and if that means that we get another delightful jazz-kwon-do sequence, then I’m all for it.

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