TV Land, oh, TV Land. I feel I understand what you are after with your neoclassical original sitcoms. You want to make new shows in an old way, with people who were there in the old days, for people who remember them (the ways, the days, the people). I like the fact that you make room for middle-aged and aged artists the bigger networks often treat as toxic, but I wish I liked your series as much in their practice as in their theory.
Even in theory, however, this is not a recipe for freshness. It is more like building a wing on your museum and filling it with counterfeits.
“The Exes,” which premieres Wednesday, is the fourth TV Land comedy. Tall Kristen Johnston (“3rd Rock From the Sun”) plays Holly, a divorce lawyer who has installed two of her clients — Phil (Donald Faison, “Scrubs”) and Haskell (Wayne Knight, who will always be Newman from “Seinfeld”) — in an apartment she had originally planned to inhabit with her fiancÃ©, until he proved unfaithful. She is also their landlady and lives conveniently across the hall.
As the pilot begins, Holly is introducing a third divorced client into her rented rooms, the newly and sadly single Stuart (David Alan Basche, not associated with any classic situation comedy). It is established that she has planted them all there both out of sympathy and to distract herself from her own problems.
Phil and Haskell get along because they barely speak, but Stuart is a disruptive presence: He wants to talk and bond and be helpful.
Stuart: “Where’s your chore schedule?”
Phil: “We don’t have one.”
Stuart: “Well then, I guess we found our first chore!”
Stuart is so much a Felix Unger — the cooking, the cleaning, the weeping — that he might as well have "© Neil Simon” stamped on his rear. Haskell, an acid lump who buys and sells things online, and Phil, who is what they call a ladies’ man, are the Oscars of the piece. As in many situation comedies, the main characters are one another’s only friends, and, blips of domestic discord notwithstanding, the episodes I’ve seen bend toward sentimental expressions of mutual support.
As the nice, sort of boring Stuart (he favors cardigans), Basche is, ipso facto, nice and sort of boring. Faison, loose and expressive, is always pleasant to watch at work. Knight, who coincidentally played Johnston’s boyfriend on “3rd Rock,” pops out another in a series of rotund, orotund, slightly icky oddballs, though he gets to be more sensitive than usual. As Holly’s assistant, Kelly Stables makes as much as can be made from lines that almost exclusively express her lack of sexual discrimination. And Johnston uses her bigness boldly; there is something in her style that belongs to a time even earlier than television.
It is not as if the younger generations don’t also borrow from the classics. Structurally, “The Exes” has much in common with Fox’s “New Girl,” but none of its spirit, surprises or depth. Watching it, you feel as if you have seen it all before, and will again, until eternity ends.