Sunday, September 25, 2005

TV: Love, Inc.

Look, I'm every bit as surprised as you're going to be, so I'll just come right out and say it: I liked Love, Inc., the new sitcom on UPN.

I know! It doesn't make sense! A sitcom on UPN actually made me laugh! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!! And yet, here we are.

The premise couldn't be any hokier: two dating service experts who can find the right match for everyone but themselves. It's Miss Match all over again. But somehow, the sharp writing and (for the most part) the acting transcends the tired set-up and creates laughs from the quirky employees and the rituals of dating.

There are a lot of good lines and good moments peppered throughout. In the opening scene, we meet dating consultant Denise as she teaches a client how to make a good impression on a first date. One strong piece of advice: "Your favorite movie is no longer Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo*." He protests, "But it works on multiple levels!" Denise is played by Busy Philipps, replacing Shannen Doherty, who was fired before the pilot aired. I can only assume they made the right choice. Philipps is certainly attractive enough, in a square-jawed, orange-skinned way, but it's her personality that really carries the show. She's quick and strong and clever and insecure and playful -- she makes the most out of the material.

The owner of the company is Clea, played by Holly Robinson Peete, and I liked her more here than I remember liking her from the few times I watched Hangin' with Mr. Cooper. She's not tremendously funny in the first episode, but she clearly can handle the humor when she gets her moments. Plus she's got an adorable little snort-laugh. Clea, like Denise, is currently unlucky in love -- she's going through a divorce.

Reagan Gomez-Preston plays Francine, the company's fashion expert. When we meet her, she's divesting a client of his unattractive accoutrements (calculator watch, fanny pack, flip-up sunglasses). Just then, his cell phone rings, playing the full orchestral theme from Star Trek. "Aw, hell no!" she exclaims. (It's funnier on film than I make it sound, trust me.)

The there's Barry, the company media expert (I'm guessing), played by Vince Vieluf, whose last name looks like a typo. Barry is a funny character, but Vieluf plays him a little too laid back at times. But he's got a few nice lines. At one point, he demands to know, "Why do they always have movie stars on the cover of TV Guide? They're not on TV!" (Oh, I've asked that question many a time myself!) Later at a club, he tells the bartender, "I'd like a drink that looks like it's from the future."

The show's got its share of missteps. The Latina receptionist looking for a man to marry to get her green card -- that's one. The guy playing Denise's ex-boyfriend Brad is another; he's played by Zachary Knighton, previously of Life on a Stick, and he's every bit as awful here as he was there. But the biggest strike going against Love, Inc., as unfair as it may be, is that it's on UPN. First of all, it has that UPN look to it -- very obviously filmed on the cheap, with all the colors way too unnaturally bright. And it's got the UPN history to go with it: I have never liked a UPN sitcom, and I don't think I'm alone in that. UPN's shows in general are pretty bad, but their sitcoms are legendarily shitty. You disagree? Well, may I remind you of a little show called Shasta McNasty? Or perhaps Homeboys in Outer Space? How about The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer? I rest my case.

It would be a shame if (by which I mean when) that keeps a larger audience from finding this show. It's a very traditional sitcom, but hard as it may be to credit it -- it's a successful one. Funny jokes and appealing actors, that's all it needs and that's exactly what it has. I hope I remember to tune in again; after all, it is UPN, and the only show they've currently got that makes me actually remember UPN exists is Veronica Mars. It's entirely possible Love, Inc. will make that two shows.

*You know, it just occurred to me, the term "male gigolo" is redundant. Gigolos can only be male. I don't exactly feel proud that it took me six years to realize that.

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