After pushing back the premiere of Friends with Benefits by more than a month, NBC finally debuted the show last night. As the sixth in a line of relationship sitcoms from the 2010-2011 season, it’s bound to be overlooked, but I’ll offer some thoughts about it and how it compares to those shows after the jump.

Friends with Benefits is…decent. It’s funny at times, it has an adequate cast, and it’s infinitely more watchable than that failed NBC sitcom starring Paul Reiser. Wait, what was it called? Oh yeah, The Paul Reiser Show.1 Similarly, Friends with Benefits’ title tells you exactly what the show is about. Just as The Paul Reiser Show was a show about Paul Reiser (or at least a fictionalized version of him), Friends with Benefits is about two good friends who like to hook up with each other on the side. The first is Sara (Danneel Ackles), a doctor seeking to settle down, and the second is Ben (Ryan Hansen), a commitment-phobe. (The audience doesn’t learn about his employment situation in the first two episodes.) Rounding out the cast are their friends, Riley (Jessica Lucas), Aaron (Zach Cregger), and Fitz (Andre Holland).

There’s not much more to be said about the show. The plots are silly and thin, some of the jokes work and some of the jokes don’t, and the characters don’t yet have much depth. By the end of the second episode, all we really know about Sara is that she’s neurotic, while the only reason that I felt as if I had gotten to know Ben was because Hansen had just transplanted his character from Party Down. (Just replace talking about BASE Jumping movies with talking about the women he has tried to date.) Yet it all sort of works. Ackles manages to coast by on her infinite charm, while I have enough residual love for the second season of Party Down2 that Ryan Hansen, despite his limited range, gets a lot of free passes from me. Holland is also excellent as Fitz, even though his character feels almost shoehorned in.

Given enough time, Friends with Benefits might have been able to evolve into a good sitcom. However, it won’t get that time. Friends with Benefits is an interesting case because it started airing as a summer burn-off, meaning that it’s not going to be renewed. Therefore, there’s no hypothetical second season in which the show could conceivably jettison the faults of its first. So, what we have are about a dozen episodes that will air as if they had been produced in a vacuum, without any viewer feedback, which renders criticizing the show almost pointless.

That’s probably why I haven’t seen much response to the show online. In any case, I imagine that most of it would be negative.3 After a string of sitcoms about relationships and two movies this year about friends who hook up without becoming romantically involved (one of which shares its name with the show),4 viewers are probably tired of twentysomethings and their romantic entanglements (which is probably the main reason why NBC relegated the show until summer). It’s not as if Friends with Benefits is much worse (if at all worse) than those sitcoms, though. Perfect Couples alternated between raucously funny and excruciatingly stupid about ten times within the span of each episode. Traffic Light started off alright, but never really got off the ground. And Happy Endings, the only one with any degree of critical acclaim, started off downright awfully and then got much better. Based solely on levels of quality, one could reasonably conclude that Friends With Benefits is the next Happy Endings, starting off by airing its worst two episodes and then improving astronomically.

However, one can’t just look at quality to determine a show’s viability. Friends with Benefits has an inherently unsustainable premise. Sara and Ben can’t just be sex buddies forever. Will-they-won’t-they can last for a very long time if there’s a lot of other stuff happening on the show. But it can’t be the point of the show for too long, or viewers will get frustrated. Imagine if every Happy Endings episode had been entirely about the awkward post-breakup romantic tension between Alex and Dave, and you’ll get what I mean.

For that reason, even though Friends With Benefits has less in common with Perfect Couples, Traffic Light and Happy Endings than those shows do with each other, it could stand to be more like them. For one thing, Friends with Benefits should be more of an ensemble show, which would give it more opportunities for non-relationship-related plot lines. Establishing a group dynamic would help draw the audience into the show’s world. It would also benefit (no pun intended) from having an actual romantic relationship on the show, if only to provide some contrast to Sara and Ben’s friends-with-benefits arrangement. In fact, I can’t help but feel as if the show has written itself into a corner with its title. Maybe it’s just the Monica-and-Chandler effect at work here, but if Courteney Cox and Matthew Perry, two co-stars with great chemistry, could make a romantic relationship seem plausible despite their characters’ incompatible personalities, I don’t see why Danneel Ackles and Ryan Hansen couldn’t too. Friends with Benefits would probably be a more interesting show if it were about Sara and Ben trying to make their relationship work despite their differences. Instead, the two of them mainly stay separate from each other in plot lines about their respective dating misadventures, but they have to spend some screen time together, which means that they don’t spend time with any of the other characters, which puts those characters operating in their own spheres, which makes them seem thinly-drawn because we don’t get to spend enough time with them, which…okay, you get the picture.

Of course, like I mentioned earlier, all of this criticism is moot, because none of it will ever be taken into account.5 I’m going to enjoy Friends with Benefits for what it is – an innocuous, mildly entertaining sitcom – and not worry about how it could be better. Hey, at least it doesn’t star Paul Reiser.

1 Sarcasm doesn’t really work on the Internet, does it? ^

2 At the risk of shocking readers of this blog, I have to admit that I didn’t like the first season of Party Down. I didn’t find it funny at all. ^

3 The only review I found was this one, by TV critic Myles McNutt. Apparently, Friends with Benefits murdered his family. Or maybe it took a dump in his bowl of Cheerios. ^

4 I haven’t seen No Strings Attached or Friends with Benefits (the movie). My desire to see a rom-com starring Ashton Kutcher is about as high as my desire to see a rom-com starring Justin Timberlake, which is about as high as my desire to dip my genitals in wasabi. ^

5 Then again, most TV criticism is moot, because an astute showrunner should be able to recognize a show’s problems, just as a critic can, and then fix them. ^