Sitcom pilots are almost always stagy and awkward. So much to do (introduce the characters, spill a little back story, insert tension and give the audience a taste of what the real show will be like) and so little time. The actors are nervous, the sets so new you can smell the paint, and the writers have inevitably hung on to some bit of business that was the heart and soul of the original idea but should have been excised during the fifth rewrite.
That said, a sitcom pilot does not have to be as stagy and awkward as the premiere of Matt Tarses' "Mad Love," which may set new records for taking a quartet of talented actors and making them do and say things no living human would ever think of doing or saying.
There are fireworks, people. In the pilot. Seen from the top of the Empire State building. And this isn't satire.
No, it's a voice-over-using but otherwise standard issue network rom-com in which an adorably neurotic guy, Ben (Jason Biggs), meets an adorably neurotic gal, Kate (Sarah Chalke), in an adorably improbable way (Ben goes up to the top of the Empire State Building to figure out his feelings for his controlling girlfriend; Kate finds his cellphone. Fireworks commence). There are miscues and obstacles (that terrible girlfriend for one) and, more important, the damaged but indispensable best friends. Ben's got slacker-sage Larry (Tyler Labine) and Kate's got world-weary Connie (Judy Greer.)
Who are, predictably, the best things about the show.
That's become something of a job description for both Labine (terrific in "Reaper" and the short-lived "Sons of Tucson") and Greer (last seen doing her best in "Miss Guided") so it's difficult not to root for "Mad Love" if only because it would be nice to see these two on a regular basis. Certainly they are a funhouse-mirror match-up — Greer's angular and defensive contemptuousness plays perfectly against Labine's endomorphic life scholarship.
Among the absurdity — Kate and Ben not only insist that their BFFs accompany them on their first "date," they won't release them from the let's-go-back-to-my-place follow up — there are glimmers of hope. When all seems lost, Larry enlists Connie's help in getting the two back together with an unexpectedly touching and narratively insightful speech. "I learned a pretty long time ago that I am not going to be the hero of the story," he says. "And if I even want to be in the story, I have one of two options: I can either help the hero or try to destroy him."
OK, it's not Chekhov or even "How I Met Your Mother," to which it will inevitably be compared, but it's a lot better than the I'll-do-anything-for-pizza jokes that precede it.
Unfortunately, much of the action revolves around Ben and Kate, who are totally boring in the way the inexplicably besotted so often are. There is a chance that they, and the writers, will kick it up a few notches and start playing at Labine and Greer's level — Tarses co-produced "Scrubs" and "Sports Night," after all. But a sitcom cannot live on B-plot alone; second bananas only work if there's a decent main course. Or they get promoted to first bananas.