It’s amazing the degree to which companies will go to replicate something that was successful. For example, before Lebron James rise to primacy in the NBA, there was a long search for who the next Michael Jordan would be. In TV, weirdly enough, this concept is best applied to every network struggling to find the next Friends. NBC tried it with Coupling, ABC tried it with Happy Endings, You could argue that Fox’s New Girl is a reinterpretation of the concept, and now CBS is trying it with the similarly titled Friends with Better Lives.
Friends with Better Lives deals with the classic neuroses that come with thinking that someone else has it together better than you. It does this by contrasting friends in different stages of emotional maturity, from single to engaged, to married to divorced. The show has a number of familiar faces such as James Van Der Beek (as divorced Will), Brooklyn Decker (as newly engaged Jules) and Kevin Connolly as happily married Bobby.
The grand flaw with Friends with Better Lives is painfully simple: when you close your eyes and listen to the jokes for a minute, you would very easily mistake it for 2 Broke Girls. Both feel reliant on stock tropes and and both have a tendency to turn blatant setups into even more blatant punchlines. This can often be groan worthy when it goes into rapid-fire mode (often a Will specialty), relying on hacky wordplay. Making this wordplay even worse is the omnipresent laugh track, which seems to fill every silence on the show, even in some instances coming in before the actual punchline of the joke.
Friends with Better Lives doubles down on old and tired with it’s incredibly goofy plotting. In order to put all of the pegs in all of the right holes, it uses the most ham-handed of methods to get it’s engaged couple engaged and Will officially divorced. However, because we’re not really acclimated to the characters or their stories, both scenes feel incredibly empty, denying the sort of emotional resonance that these wham moments typically tend to have.
What saves Friends with Better Lives is it’s cast. James Van Der Beek in particular seems to be having a blast launching one-liners in rapid fire fashion whenever the occasion allows. Similarly, Rick Donald manages to hit the tone of Lowell, a smug-yet-progressive Australian with a rare sort of touch that tends to elude these sorts of shows, not allowing the character to completely devolve into the caricature that some of the main characters end up turning into (the show’s lone single character at the outset, Kate tends to be victim to this sort of treatment).
The Final Verdict: Friends with Better Lives is what would happen if you throw every CBS comedy into a blender and spit out a shiny new sitcom (to the extent that I’m surprised Chuck Lorre’s name isn’t attached to it). Unfortunately, where those other sitcoms have distinctive features that can at least make their pitch “CBS formula PLUS “insert X here” EQUALS “New Show”, Friends with Better Lives is “CBS formula” PLUS “Friends clone formula” EQUALS “A bunch of stuff we’ve already seen before”. Skip this one, and may one day the comedy gods find the right home for James Van Der Beek.