Perfect Couples

Because Thursdays weren't already crowded enough, guess who's joining the party?

In case you hadn't heard, American Idol is now setting up shop on Thursdays in the 8/7c hour, providing more intense competition to a time period that already includes a hit sitcom (The Big Bang Theory), a brilliant cult comedy (Community), a guilty-pleasure reality hit (Wipeout) and, resuming new episodes in a week, a guilty-pleasure supernatural hit (The Vampire Diaries).

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This is also the night that NBC is taking a considerable but necessary risk by playing to its comedy strengths and devoting the entire night to half-hour comedies. (Love Bites, the long-delayed romantic-comedy anthology, must be a real stinker not to have been put into play by this point in the season.)

The worst part of the equation is that it strands Community in the 8/7c hour opposite such heavy-hitters, and NBC is giving it no help by pairing it with the as-generic-as-it-sounds relationship comedy Perfect Couples. (Think Better With You with a less interesting cast.) The best part of the lineup is that Parks and Recreation gets to follow The Office in the 9/8c hour. These shows are a good tonal fit — in part because they're basically the same show — and if Parks is ever going to catch on, getting the lead-in from NBC's most popular comedy (while Steve Carell is still attached) is its best shot. The riskiest part of the night is moving 30 Rock, an acclaimed but uneven underperformer, to the 10/9c hour, yoked with the innocuous Outsourced.

And if all this weren't enough, USA Network is muscling its way back onto the night, with a continuation of summer escapist fave Royal Pains' second season to help launch the new Fairly Legal.

To elaborate on the new kids on the block:

NBC's Perfect Couples is perfect as only one thing: an unwelcome reminder of the long-ago era when "must-see" NBC ruled Thursdays (it's been a while), and the network was so smugly complacent it regularly filled the 8:30/7:30c half-hour between hits with cookie-cutter nonentities.

Couples hews to a formula (not unlike Better With You, and not better than) in which three couples are constantly contrasted. At the core, and most agreeable, are the cool and laid-back though somewhat passive-aggressive Dave and Julia (Happy Hour's Kyle Bornheimer and Christine Woods, who have some actual chemistry). They're forever beset by the obnoxious yuppie-stereotype haranguing of Julia's ex-jock/borderline alcoholic brother Rex (Hayes McArthur) and his uptight wife Leigh (Olivia Munn, surprisingly flat), whose main joke is an addiction to relationship-advice manuals. Rounding out the sex-talky sextet are needy drama- queen attention hogs Vance (David Walton) and the insecure Amy (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), who are always loudly breaking up when not having boisterous make-up sex.

In the pilot, an ill-fated game night spills over into disrupting Dave and Julia's anniversary the next night, during which they're constantly thwarted in their desire to just be left alone. If you have the misfortune of meeting their tiresome friends, you'll sympathize with them. And I can't imagine anyone wanting to come back for more.

Similarly, there's not a lot that's new in USA's Fairly Legal, which plays by that channel's rulebook for peppy procedural escapism. Its primary asset is a feisty, foxy lead performance by Sarah Shahi (formerly of NBC's Life) as Kate Reed, a happy-to-be-scrappy mediator who quit practicing law and now prefers to settle disputes of all sorts outside the legal system, which she despises. Her brash methods, including a frequent piercing whistle, tend to rattle those in her inner circle, including a newly widowed ice queen "wicked stepmother" (Virginia Williams in a thankless role) who's now running the family law firm, possibly into the ground. Kate also bedevils her hunky D.A. ex-husband Michael Trucco (Battlestar Galactica), when she isn't bedding him on the houseboat where she lives. Yes, Kate is quirky. Also unflappable, including an inauspiciously silly early scene in which she mediates her way out of a coffee-shop holdup.

Legal is fairly banal, and its focus is often as fuzzy and vague as its by-the-numbers title. Thankfully, Shahi has more than enough personal charm and sex appeal to keep this vehicle afloat until it finds its own voice. And even if it doesn't, it's not as if USA Network has ever been punished for serving up a steady diet of comfort food.

Perfect Couples premieres Thursday, 8:30/7:30c, on NBC.

Fairly Legal premieres Thursday, 10/9c, on USA Network.

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