Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life has two big influences, and it's not trying to hide them.
In fact, they were part of how creator Jay Lacopo pitched the comedy to Fox: It's a little bit Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and a little bit The Hangover. "Those were two films I mentioned to help the network understand the tone of what we were going for," Lacopo tells TVGuide.com.
Pointing out influences is not to say that Cooper Barrett is overly derivative or uncreative. While it's indebted to those movies, the series, premiering Sunday, Jan. 3 at 8:30/7:30c, finds its own identity in the strength of its ensemble and its above-average action for a single-camera comedy. The show is a clever and heightened take on the "fun people hanging out" genre where the sticky situations the characters get themselves into are less about social cues and more about hostage situations, which is where it goes in the pilot.
The conceit of Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life is somewhat like an instructional YouTube video: Cooper Barrett (Jack Cutmore-Scott), a 26-year-old with more charisma than sense, outlines a problem that the average young person will face, such as losing one's phone or overdrawing one's bank account. He then shows the story of what led to this inconvenience — it usually involves a plot spiraling out of control (i.e. him ending up getting kidnapped or sneaking into Mexico) — and wraps it up with direct-to-the-camera advice from the present about how to deal with, or better yet, avoid that situation. Lacopo originally conceived of it as a found-footage series, and it evolved into the Bueller-style, fourth-wall-breaking form it currently takes.
Cutmore-Scott gives a winning performance as Barrett, cocky but with enough self-deprecation to keep him likable. That's a tough chore; the producers looked at 170 actors before finding him. Executive producer Bill Callahan says that while there's no shortage of good-looking cool guys, finding a cool guy who can also play flawed was hard to find.
"At the time Jack came in, we joke, he was probably 40 percent better than the next best person," says Callahan. "It was a pretty easy choice."
At the other end of the spectrum, Meaghan Rath was the only actress they looked at for Kelly, Cooper's neighbor and will-they-won't-they love interest. She came in on the first day of auditions and effortlessly nailed the character. "She left the room and we were like 'Is that her? Are we done?'" says Lacopo. Fox already knew and liked Rath from her arc on New Girl, and that was that.
Charlie Saxton and James Earl play Cooper's roommates and best friends, and The Hangover's Justin Bartha plays Cooper's older brother Josh, a family man who wants to vicariously live the carefree 20s he didn't really have through Cooper and his friends.
The biggest revelation and strongest development in the show is the fleshing out of Leslie, Josh's wife, played by Liza Lapira. In the pilot (the weakest of the four episodes screened by critics), Leslie is described as a "funsucker," the nagging, mostly unseen wife who wants to ruin the boys' fun, like Rachael Harris in the first Hangover. But Lapira is so offbeat and funny that the writers, realizing what a gem of an actor they had, cast off the shrewish cliche and made Leslie an integral part of the ensemble.
"I have friends who paint their wives as the ball-and-chain, and then you meet them and they couldn't be more adorable and well-adjusted," Lacopo says. The disconnect between how Josh describes his relationship with his wife and what it really is gives a more rounded dimension to the relationship. And it makes Josh much more likable, because it shows that while he's kind of selfish, he also has this cool wife whom he loves very much.
In the Mexico episode ("How to Survive Being a Plus One"), Lapira delivers a very simple, almost throwaway line in such a peculiar way that it becomes one of the biggest laughs of the episode, and it was moments like that when Lacopo and Callahan knew they were working with a very unique talent. "And moments like that keep happening," Callahan says.
With Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life, Lacopo and Callahan are attempting to give some sort of roadmap for people navigating their 20s. Lacopo thinks college doesn't prepare you for your 20s, when you're still figuring out who you are. The only way to get through it is by experimenting and making mistakes - or, hopefully, by learning from Cooper's.
Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life premieres Sunday, Jan. 3 at 8:30/7:30c.