I’m generally a fan of Occam’s Razor: the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions is the likeliest. But after watching the last two scheduled episodes of NBC’s Friends with Benefits last night, I find myself less enamoured with that principle. Friends with Benefits has by no means been a great show, but it hasn’t been a clunker either. Usually, I’m content to dismiss mediocrity as the product of not very talented people, but there are a few signs which point to an alternative explanation: the version of Friends with Benefits that we saw isn’t the one that the creators had intended to produce from the outset. Sound crazy? I’ll explain after the jump.

Whether fairly or not, Friends With Benefits was lumped in with the rest of this past season’s “relationship sitcoms” and then summarily dismissed. But what if the show wasn’t originally conceived as a “relationship sitcom?” What if it was supposed to be a send-up of those kinds of shows?

That seems absurd, right? After last night’s episodes, which featured the greatest amount of Sara/Ben drama to date, no one is going to argue that Friends With Benefits wasn’t trying to be sincere. But what struck me about the previous ten episodes was how often Sara and Ben were portrayed as unlikable people, not because they were irritating or misguided, but because they were just bad people. They were selfish, self-absorbed, and judgmental, often displaying little regard for fellow human beings outside their circle of friends. The only people whom they always seemed to care about were each other. By contrast, even in their worst moments, Aaron, Riley, and Fitz maintained a core of likability.

I’m not suggesting that a show’s characters need to be likable in order for it to be a success. Though I’m loath to use it as an example because I liked but didn’t love it, Arrested Development is a show that succeeded because – not in spite of the fact that – its characters were horrible people. But Arrested Development didn’t expect us to like the Bluths or sympathize with them on any level. In fact, it used its mockumentary format as a distancing mechanism to keep the audience from investing emotionally in its characters. On the other hand, Friends with Benefits expects us to like Sara and Ben, even when they’re dumping potential partners for shallow reasons or being vain and self-aggrandizing. An easy assumption though it may be, I just can’t bring myself to believe that the show’s writers would be so tone-deaf as to think that Sara and Ben are characters whom people would want to root for.

That got me thinking: what if I wasn’t supposed to like Sara and Ben in the first place? What if Friends with Benefits was originally conceived as a loopier, Arrested-Development-esque show, rife with satire and cynical comedy? It sort of makes sense. Riley and Fitz would have been the lovable free spirits in search of random hookups; Aaron would have been the cute but hapless guy, unlucky in love; and Sara and Ben would have been the unlikable people at the centre of it all. Eventually, they would have realized that their selfishness and general unpleasantness made them a perfect match, and they would have gotten together for real. Sara and Ben would have been the perfect parody of almost every romance story ever told: two people who bring out the worst in each other and decide to be with each other because of it.

But somewhere along the way, all of that got lost. Between its conception and its airing, Friends with Benefits was transformed into just another relationship sitcom, and last night, that transformation was completed as the show became a Friends-esque soap-com. Clearly, the network or the studio intervened at some point and tinkered with the show. Fran Kranz was originally cast as Aaron, but he was later replaced by Zach Cregger, because, according to rumour, his portrayal was too over-the-top, even though it’s reportedly how the director told him to play the part. The character of Fitz didn’t even exist at first; originally, he was supposed to be a white guy named Hoon, played by Ian Reed Kesler. The Futon Critic’s review of the original pilot lists a bunch of very off-colour lines from Hoon that never made it into the show. But once the decision to rewrite and recast was made, rather than going back to the drawing board and reimagining the show, new actors were shoehorned in, and the rewrites didn’t change much of the overall plot.

It’s clear that the show was toned down from its original form, whatever that form may have been. But I wonder why. Did NBC really believe that a cookie-cutter relationship sitcom would have more success than a bolder, raunchier, more satirical one? Well, apparently all the other major networks did too, which is why there were so many relationship sitcoms last season. But I can’t help but think that Friends with Benefits could have distinguished itself from that pack if it hadn’t been tampered with. Instead, we got a muddled, tonally-confused show that finally decided it wanted to be a dramedy last night. It’s as if the network’s sensibilities were at odds with those of the show’s creators; NBC wanted to create another great will-they/won’t-they couple, while Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber just wanted to create a fascinatingly odious duo at the centre of their show. Thus, Sara and Ben would do stupid, terrible things, but the scripts were still written as if we were supposed to root for these characters. NBC was engaged in a game of tug-of-war with Neustadter and Weber, and the network finally won last night.

Really, the network’s imprint is visible all over this show, from the gratuitous bra-and-panties scenes that populate every episode to the sappy, let’s-hug-it-out resolutions at each installment’s end, and it’s a shame because while sex and warm, fuzzy moments are two things that people generally like, their mere presence isn’t a guarantee of success. The show might have been better off dispensing with them altogether and instead focusing on irreverent, cynical comedy. A satirical relationship sitcom could have been a total train wreck, but I have a hard time believing that NBC ever thought a retooled, toned-down Friends with Benefits would be a huge hit. At some point, it’s possible that they realized they’d made a mistake in messing with the show, which might explain why it was relegated to summer burn-off.

You might be wondering why I’ve spent so many words speculating about and analyzing a sitcom that has been dismissed by most people. If what I think happened here is partially true, then it has larger implications for the state of programming on NBC. In recent years, the network has put out a lot of original, unique programming – 30 Rock; Community; Chuck; Friday Night Lights – but it seems as if the network is trying to play it safe now. Ironically, though, if they’re stifling creativity by retooling original concepts, then they’re just shooting themselves in the foot; they’re getting rid of the kind of programming that sets them apart from their competitors. Just take a look at their crop of new fall shows: Free Agents, a remake of a British workplace sitcom; Grimm, a Supernatural clone; The Playboy Club, an attempt to cash in on the love for Mad Men; Prime Suspect, a remake of a British show that takes the original and turns into a run-of-the-mill procedural; Up All Night, a comedy about new parents; and Whitney, a sitcom that looks as if it was grabbed from a time machine out of the ’90s (or from CBS). Only Up All Night seems to have any spark of originality in its concept, and guess what? Surprise, surprise! It’s being retooled!

Maybe NBC will prove me wrong and have wild success with all these shows, thereby making the network’s unsuccessful intervention with Friends with Benefits an anomaly. It might be possible for the perennial fourth-place network to turn things around by playing it safe. But “safe” isn’t what captures hearts and minds. “Safe” isn’t what imprints itself onto the public’s consciousness. “Safe” won’t create the next Lost or 24. “Safe” might just be a way of stopping NBC’s already abysmal viewership numbers from declining even further. If that means messing around with unique concepts and putting a damper on creativity, then so be it.

Of course, all of this is based on crazy speculation about Friends with Benefits, a lot of which is probably false. But there’s no question that the show was retooled; it’s just the extent of that retooling that is unknown. What I do know is this: Friends with Benefits was a semi-decent show. It could have been a whole lot better, but it could have been a whole lot worse. So maybe NBC is on to something. Maybe retooling, even if it isn’t totally successful, does sort of work. Maybe NBC is right to play it safe. We’ll see if that’s true once the fall season gets underway.

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