Like most lesbians over the age of 35, I remember exactly where I was when Ellen’s “The Puppy Episode” aired back in 1997. Even if you’re not old enough to remember it, you know all about it. It is the most significant cultural milestone in gay TV history. Tonight, Ellen returned to the tempestuous world of network sitcoms, kind of. She produced Liz Feldman‘s new lesbian-centric comedy One Big Happy, which landed on NBC to generally unkind reviews.
One Big Happy is based on Liz Feldman’s real life. It tells the story of a Type-A lesbian named Lizzy and her laid back best friend, Luke, who decide to have a baby together because they’re in their 30s and neither of them have had significant romantic relationships in a while. But in the early days of trying to conceive — through artificial means — Luke is swept off his feet by a British woman named Prudence. When he returns home from a whirlwind trip to Vegas, where he married Prudence, he finds out Lizzy is pregnant. Lizzy and Prudence spend most of the pilot episode fighting over Luke, until he chooses his best friend, because he made a promise to her first. But Lizzy loves Luke and Luke loves Prudence, so Lizzy chases down her new frenemy at the airport and asks her to come live with them, Three’s Company-style.
The negative critical response to One Big Happy isn’t really a surprise. With very few exceptions, sitcom pilots are notoriously terrible because they have to do too many things: introduce you to all the show’s characters, tell a self-contained story, lay the groundwork for a season-long story, make you laugh, and hook you so you’ll come back for more next week. And all in 22 minutes.
I don’t have any interest in shredding something lovingly stitched together by two of the funniest and most open-hearted lesbians on earth, but it’s also my job to be honest and critical, so let’s break One Big Happy‘s pilot down into The Good and The Could Be Better.
Here’s the trailer:
Despite the fact that we’re seeing exponential growth for queer women on TV, there’s still a huge void of queer lady representation in sitcoms. In fact, I can count all of the leading lesbian/bi sitcom characters in television history on one hand. Ellen from Ellen, Karen from Will & Grace, Amy from Faking It, Anne from Go On, and Kay from Marry Me. Karen’s bisexuality was only implied; Go On barely lasted one season; and NBC seems ready to pull the plug on Marry Me after its first season. So, yes, a dearth! One Big Happy is honestly the first sitcom to really try to lead with a lesbian since Ellen, which is bonkers if you think about it. That was 17 years ago. So that’s good! There’s a need and One Big Happy is trying to fill it!
Also good is the chemistry between Elisha Cuthbert (who plays Lizzy), Nick Zano (who plays Luke), and Kelly Brook (who plays Prudence). Cuthbert, especially, has proven herself as a hilarious actress with flawless comedic timing. She’s forced to play the straight man a lot in the pilot, but when she gets to be the funny one, it’s going to be a very good thing.
The pilot offered up some hearty giggles. Liz Feldman is a funny lady. There’s no doubt about that. And she told us she approved the scripts for all six episodes NBC has commissioned so far, so it’ll be fun to see how One Big Happy plays when it finds its rhythm. Riese and I talked and talked and talked about this pilot, and she said her girlfriend, Abby, laughed a whole lot during it (which is good for many reasons, including: Abby has the flu, so she deserves to guffaw).
The Could Be Better
One Big Happy is a multi-camera laugh-track sitcom, which means it looks and sounds a lot more like Friends, Seinfeld and Will & Grace than 30 Rock, Community and Parks and Recreation. It’s a weird creative choice. I mean, CBS makes a killing with its multi-camera sitcoms, but it feels a bit dated for NBC. It’s really surprising that the show didn’t aim for a more Modern Family aesthetic.
The laughs rely on gently mocking stereotypes and making double-entendres, which isn’t my personal cup of tea, but if you love The Big Bang Theory‘s set-and-spike-style comedy, you’re probably going to like this. Still, though, comedy is made for skewering tropes, and Liz Feldman is one of the funniest women in Hollywood, so I hope NBC loosens the reins and lets her get a little more real.
The most frustrating thing about One Big Happy to me is that the focus of the show is how the two main women feel about the man in their life, even though one of the women is a lesbian. Pru and Lizzy only talk about Luke, only argue about Luke, only think about Luke. When they’re all three in a scene together, he is physically positioned between them at all times. The pilot isn’t super Bechdel-friendly, is what I am saying.
I want One Big Happy to succeed. I am rooting for it hard. And hopefully NBC hangs in there through the growing pains. It’d be smart. The first seasons of The Office, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock were all really shaky. The first six episodes of Parks and Recreation were almost unwatchable. (And then it turned into the greatest, most feminist show ever.)
I mentioned “The Puppy Episode” at the beginning of this review because when I tuned into One Big Happy tonight, I figured everyone I know would be watching too, for sentiment’s sake alone. I am surrounded by queer pop culture aficionados. But I don’t know anyone besides me and my girlfriend (and Riese and her girlfriend) who watched the show live. Some of my friends were still reeling on Pretty Little Liars, which aired right before One Big Happy. Some of my friends were watching Laverne Cox over on The Mindy Project. Some of my friends were catching a rerun of The Fosters. Some of my friends were doing their weekly Defiance rewatch. They were all watching queer women on TV, but none of them were watching One Big Happy.
It made me wonder if the lasting legacy of Ellen is that it was the springboard that created a culture where she can executive produce a sitcom about a lesbian character, and gay women are only just sort of peripherally interested in it. A world where One Big Happy can fly or flop, and it won’t really be a big deal, in terms of queer representation on television. What a sad, weird, kind of wonderful thing.
Did you watch One Big Happy? What’d you think of the pilot episode? Will you be tuning in for more?