On Friday, I checked out a taping of ABC's newest sitcom starring Alyssa Milano and Kyle Bornheimer (Worst Week), Romantically Challenged. Such begins my first installment in a brand spankin' new column for 2010: Report from the Set! Before I left for the show, a friend asked me what the show, which doesn't premiere until spring, is about. I retorted that Milano plays a newly-divorced mom who must obviously be the aforementioned romantically challenged. Other than that, I admit I didn't know much else...yet.
Romantically Challenged is a traditional four-camera sitcom, directed by the esteemed James Burrows and set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but which tapes over at CBS-Radford in Studio City CA. It turns out Milano's character (Rebecca) is trying to start over after learning her ex-husband of only a few months is already engaged to another woman, while she, on the other hand, hasn't been doing much of anything other than working and raising their teenage son. Of course one of her first experiences entering back into the dating world has her completely messing up by lying not only about what she does for a living (she's a lawyer but tells the guy she "washes dogs," as appears to be a very trendy job these days, judging by how many sitcoms feature mentions of women who do that!) as well as how old her son is. While the show will inevitably focus on many similar unlucky-in-love trials and tribulations for Rebecca, it is much more of an ensemble than one might imagine, considering ABC has been thus far promoting the program as "Milano's new comedy."
Only a few episodes later, for example, Rebecca takes somewhat of a backseat, in a B-storyline that has her meddling in her little sister (we'll get to her in a minute)'s own love life, while her two male friends experience some "bromance troubles" of their own...
Bornheimer portrays Perry, Rebecca's best friend who is a sweet, romantic guy-- one who many women might assume is gay. In one early episode he takes a cooking class because he is really focused on learning how to make "frushi" (sushi made up entirely of fruits) but ends up meeting what he thinks is his perfect woman. Unfortunately for him, she has a thing for dirty talk and spanking, and he just can't get behind (no pun intended) such things.
Perry's couch-crashing roommate Shawn, portrayed by Josh Lawson, is an aspiring novelist who has been friends with Perry and Rebecca since they were kids. His wacky antics range from sending Rebecca's son to school with a short story he wrote to forgetting to pick up Perry from the dentist when he's recovering from oral surgery. Shawn seems to be the butt of many "he just can't get laid" jokes, despite the fact that he is adorably charming (due mostly to Lawson himself). Perry and Shawn have a very Chandler and Joey, respectively, relationship!
But Shawn is not the obligatory comic relief character in this show. That title belongs to Kelly Stables, the smaller screen's Leslie Mann, who plays Rebecca's little sister Lisa. Lisa is a pixie of a kindergarten teacher by day but attracted to the bad boys by night. She is the typical "always picks the wrong men" character but without the self-deprecation or the humorous alcoholism (see Ashley Jensen on CBS' Accidentally on Purpose).
Though the cast and crew were only working on their third episode for their first season when I sat in, the seasoned pros that rounded out the group kept everything running smoothly and efficiently. The writers worked hard on-set to rewrite jokes on the fly, so to speak, as with any show taped in front of a live audience, but it never appeared to be because said audience wasn't responding; they simply wanted to have options in the editing room. The simplest example of a change was a simple line tweak or two, such as when Lisa pointed out a guy she found attractive. He started out as a "guy with a ponytail who could make his pecs bounce" and turned into "a guy with a 'No Fat Chicks' tee shirt" and ended up "a guy with a mullet eating a Churro." However, one particular full scene between Perry and Shawn was re-worked, blocking and all, after the first take fell flat for Burrows. Attending a taping and then watching the episode back at home when it airs, therefore, comes with a fun parlor game to see which versions survived the cutting room floor!
The actors, also, are just as well seasoned, and it was fun to watch them bounce off each other both on-screen and while prepping for scenes. For as professional and talented as they all are, each one of them got tripped up at least once in the evening, caught off-guard by a facial expression or particular line delivery that had them break character, flub their own line, and/or just start laughing. They were having fun with it, so the crew, and the audience in turn, were also having fun with it. The show itself, and their off-screen relationships, may be brand new, but the "honeymoon stage" is doing wonders for their on-screen chemistry.
Admittedly, Romantically Challenged does rely on many of the traditional sitcom staples on which to draw its laughs. There is the expositional recapping of past somewhat ludicrous events in dialogue between characters, the occasional pratfall or other type of site gag, and even the apartment/coffee shop "hangout" sets (though the sets are exceptionally sleek and fun to look at with or without the actors walking around on them). Since the show focuses primarily on relationships-- the platonic ones between the four main cast and the romantic ones with any guest stars that are brought in (one such guest who will appear in episode five or six is Kris Polaha**)-- many of the stories told will be ones that you inevitably seen before. However, therein lies countless permutations of coupling and complications, meaning the show could easily air season after season with its very open-ended premise of these singles all looking for love...or at least lust.
Though the premiere is not scheduled until pretty late in the mid-season game-- April 5--executives at Romantically Challenged do not seem not worried. In fact, on Friday buzz on the set was all about the "high Q rating" this show is already scoring just based on its star(s) and probably it's universal theme. Tune into Romantically Challenged on ABC this spring!
And please stay tuned for future Report from the Set installments featuring Justified and Children's Hospital, among others!
**I originally reported Eddie Cahill would be guest starring but I am now hearing that may have been misinformation. The only way to clarify is to tune in week after week for the six weeks starting in April!