Due to the high demands of heavy-lifting — scene-setting, character introduction and general exposition — most sitcom pilots are clunky and self-conscious to the point of embarrassment.
The first half-hour of Liz Feldman's "One Big Happy," which premieres Tuesday on NBC, is a bit worse than that. But to be fair, it's got a lot more to lift than most.
The situation Feldman and producer Ellen DeGeneres hopes will turn out to be comedic is this: Lizzy (Elisha Cuthbert) is a lesbian who lives with her straight best friend Luke (Nick Zano), with whom she has one of those "if we make it to 30 and we still haven't found someone, then" arrangements so popular with screenwriters and we can only pray no one else.
In this case, the "then" does not refer to marriage — Lizzy is out to the point of referring to herself in first person/"lesbo" — but parenthood. Lizzy and Luke, with the aid of some off-screen doctor/turkey baster, are trying to have a baby. It's not going so well, and it's about to get worse.
While drowning their sorrows, Luke meets Prudence (Kelly Brook), the British and free-spirited girl of his dreams. Who's about to be deported. (Keep up with me now.)
So of course, he marries her (no pesky Immigration Services interview required!), and of course Lizzy's upset, because a) she's jealous in a nonsexual way and b) she's pregnant, also in a nonsexual way and c) all comedy needs conflict, and what better conflict can there be than two very different women loving the same totally lovable man?
Any. Any conflict would be better.
Lizzy and Prudence are as opposite as opposite can be. One's gay, one's straight; one's OCD, the other's a free spirit; one's British, the other's American; one's slim and blond, the other busty and brunet.
You get the picture: Felix and Oscar after Oscar marries the sensible loving woman with whom Felix (the openly gay version) is attempting to have a child.
As gratifying as it is to have an out lesbian at the center of a broadcast network comedy, I can't help but wish the modern family of "One Big Happy" didn't seem to be composed of two nutty women and a sensible male.
But then I don't think large breasts are, by their very nature, funny so I do miss out on almost half the jokes of early episodes.
Which doesn't mean "One Big Happy" is offensive; if anything, it's too defensive.
Feldman and her writers are so obsessed with making "One Big Happy" socially righteous — Lizzy announces her gayness with the frequency of an undercover straight person — that they forgot to give it any heart. Tasked with establishing the rather tortured set up — Why can't Luke just be dating Prudence? Why can't Lizzy seem the tiniest bit like she wants to be a mother? — the pilot could, perhaps, be forgiven for treating pregnancy and marriage as if they were narrative props, like the nosy neighbor.
Unfortunately, subsequent episodes continue with story lines that all but ignore the impact of, you know, major life changes in adult lives.
The cast is certainly capable of inhabiting a better show. Despite direction that seems to consist of "storm to other side of the room" and "make funny faces," Cuthbert and Zano manage to sell the lifelong friendship, but they aren't allowed to do much with it beyond a lot of adolescent bickering.
Indeed, the whole crew seems to be emotionally stunted at age 22. Which is a problem, considering there's a baby on the way. More worrisome than, say, Lizzy getting a date is Lizzy getting a job; neither she nor Prudence appears to be employed, and Luke runs a bowling alley.
But then "One Big Happy" doesn't seem interested in the actual comedy, and pathos, that might be involved in establishing a family, nontraditional or otherwise. Instead, it seems determined to make sure we realize that Prudence has big breasts and likes to be naked, which makes Lizzy a bit uncomfortable because she's a, say it with me now, lesbian!