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'Friends With Better Lives:' In CBS sitcom, digital-media roots

The television writer Dana Klein had been logging on to social media sites for about a year when she began to feel something unexpected: a sense of anxiety and envy.

Klein, now 39, recalled that she was and remains very happy with her life, which includes marriage to the actor Mark Feuerstein and raising the three children they have together. But these sites were stirring grass-is-greener feelings just the same.

“Happiness is supposed to be wanting what you have, but often it’s about people wanting what they don’t have,” she said ruefully. “And now with Instagram and Facebook it’s all in your face.”

That impulse in part spurred Klein, a sitcom veteran who worked on the last three seasons of “Friends,” to create a show based on that feeling.

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On Monday the results of that effort will be unveiled when CBS debuts the multicam comedy “Friends With Better Lives,” slotting it at 9 p.m. after the “How I Met Your Mother” finale before the show settles into its 8:30 p.m. time slot next Monday. “Friends With Better Lives” stars a bevy of well-known 40-and-under personalities, including James Van Der Beek as a recent divorcee, Brooklyn Decker as a beautiful and impulsive drifter, Zoe Lister-Jones as an acid-tongued single woman and Kevin Connolly as suburban dad who worries that his life has grown stale.

In the debut episode, Decker’s character winds up dating an Australian New Age restaurateur she barely knows, while Van Der Beek’s character comes to terms with his impending separation. The comedy derives from each character ribbing the other on their life choices even as they not–so-secretly doubt their own.

“There have always been these differences among groups of friends but we live in a time when these disparities are blasted out, and I think that's what the show wants to explore,” Van Der Beek said.

The series riffs on some of the actors’ real-life experiences but also plays against them: Van der Beek has several children in real life but is childless in the show, while Connolly isn’t married but in the series plays the archetypal TV father. That leads to some exchanging of life-derived guidance on set; Van der Beek, for instance, has been giving Connolly suggestions on how to hold baby accoutrements.

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The pedigree of the show and its conceit of six friends with interconnected story lines is bound to evoke comparisons to a certain NBC megahit. But  Klein noted that the show is different from “Friends,” not least because it is following thirtysomething characters and issues well beyond post-college single life.

“It’s a very different show, but I hope that people who like ‘Friends’ like this,” she said. “I also hope that anyone who likes ‘How I Met your Mother’ or any ensemble comedy likes this.” (It’s worth noting the show’s premise has some parallels to CBS’ former long-running show “Rules of Engagement,” which also follows assorted people at different stages of couplehood.)

Ultimately, Klein said she hopes that the series lands because of what it says about our common experiences of marriage, parenthood and dating. “I want to do something relatable,” she said. “We exaggerate things for comedy, but I hope people see parts of themselves in these characters.”

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