Elisha Cuthbert

It probably didn't help that I got an advance copy of this week's hilarious episode of Modern Family. But after laughing fairly continuously for an entire half-hour of farcical mayhem (involving Cam staging a middle-school musical), inspired innuendo (involving an ad Phil plasters on the sides of the family mini-van) and snark-tinged sentiment (involving a visit from Jay's brother), it was especially hard to muster much enthusiasm for the latest sitcom hopefuls in a dismal network mid-season.

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The least aggravating (which these days is a plus) of this week's newbies is ABC's Happy Endings, the latest in a long line of derivative Friends rom-com clones about a quippy, cutesy sextet of best buds who could use a refresher course in chemistry. The pilot episode (in a special 9:30/8:30c time period) is built around a life-changing incident in these friends' lives, when the flighty Alex (24's Elisha Cuthbert) impulsively dumps her laid-back-to-a-fault groom Dave (FlashForward's colorless Zachary Knighton) on the altar in front of their mortified inner circle.

The shock waves provide some modest comedy, as Dave goes into a depressive tailspin while Alex tries to win her way back into the group's good graces. But why would she even want to? The pack includes Alex's control-freak sister Jane (a terrible character, horribly overplayed by Eliza Coupe of latter-day Scrubs), married to preppy pushover Brad (Damon Wayans, Jr.). This couple is initially shown obsessing over a "pre-pregnancy cleanse" diet. "I like to keep a tidy uterus," says Jane, who later makes reference to her "va-Jane-a." Clearly, the writers have watched too much Grey's Anatomy and learned all the wrong lessons.

Two singles — the unhappily unattached Penny (Saturday Night Live vet Casey Wilson) and the merrily on-the-prowl gay guy Max (Adam Pally), who worries about being "chubby" — round out the main cast. Max is probably the freshest character, described as a "straight dude who likes dudes" because his beefy macho exterior doesn't conform to the usual stereotypes. (In one episode, he finds a screaming bitchy queen out of the Will & Grace playbook to befriend Penny when she desires a "gay husband.") But none of them act or talk like actual people. They also share a form of sitcom amnesia, dropping the whole "runaway bride" set-up pretty quickly — which probably makes sense, because we had nothing invested in these people prior to that event and it's hard to care about what happens to them after.

Some of the situations they encounter on the dating and relationship circuit are promisingly wacky, but the tortured jokes lean way too heavily on pop-culture references: "I feel like I was on a UPN reality show." (UPN?) "That sounds like the plot of a Dane Cook movie." "You know what sounds like more fun? Being in wet clothes and watching Schindler's List." "You're the Michael Jordan of ruining relationships." And there's an inevitable "cougar" joke in homage to Cuthbert's infamous past as Kim Bauer on 24. Followed by a CTU joke. Because maybe we didn't get the first one?

ABC is doing its part to deny Happy Endings a happy ending by scheduling it at the end of a long comedy night at 10/9c, sandwiched between Cougar Town (welcome back next week!) and Modern Family repeats. If it somehow should return for another season, I expect someone might toss off a joke at the expense of NBC's new The Paul Reiser Show.

As in: "That smells worse than The Paul Reiser Show." Or: "That's a worse idea than The Paul Reiser Show."

Although it's hard to imagine a worse idea than The Paul Reiser Show, creating a new void (Thursdays, 8:30/7:30c) to replace the void that was Perfect Couples. This ghastly exercise in self-absorption brings us the star of Mad About You in a vanity project that might as well be titled Mad About Me. He plays himself, or a version of himself, a happily married (to the lovely Amy Landecker) housedad with way too much time on his hands. His best friends are also dads, and their interaction feels like a more slapsticky version of Men of a Certain Age, minus the heart.

Reiser as Reiser opens each episode speaking directly to the audience through the camera. "I'm not dead yet, so what do I do next?" he neurotically prattles, coming off like a wooden Woody Allen. The first episode finds Paul fretting over how to describe himself on a school form. "What would you say I do for a living?" he wonders aloud to one of his nondescript buddies. Whatever it is, I bet he'll soon drop The Paul Reiser Show from his resume.

As Reiser-as-Reiser ponders what to do with his life and apparently stagnant non-career — maybe accept an ill-suited game-show offer from Mark Burnett, who tells him, "Your misery is the funny part" — the meta vibe of watching Reiser interact with actual show-biz figures (including a hostile Henry Rollins in a later episode) uncomfortably recalls Curb Your Enthusiasm. This smug similarity is awkwardly and misguidedly hammered home when Reiser arranges a sit-down with Larry David, as himself, to discuss the game-show offer. David's rant ends with this observation: "You should be doing your version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, because you're so much worse than I am."

Well, the show is, anyway. I finally decided to take Reiser's advice when he opens the third episode by saying right to the camera, "Do me a favor. Don't listen to me."

Gladly.

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