Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky thinks this show is less significant than it wants to be.
Our review of Significant Others: The Complete Series, published September 16th, 2004, is also available.
"Honey, therapy's not supposed to be funny."—Eleanor (Faith Salie)
There was a time when improv acting was still sort of at the fringe. Sure, groups like Second City trained in it, but most of those performers went on to do scripted comedy. And few directors (Robert Altman, Christopher Guest) used the technique successfully to create films that were not self-indulgent or sloppy. Then a few years ago, improv became the "in" thing, thanks in part to shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And, without further ado, here is yet another largely improvised comedy that bills itself on the packaging as "innovative and irreverent." If you don't remember it, then bear in mind that it was on Bravo during the height of the Queer Eye craze, so it is not surprising that it was buried by the hype surrounding that show. The conceit of Significant Others is its focus on four couples in marriage counseling. Over the course of two seasons (and twelve episodes), the couples fight, reconcile, break up, and even sometimes divorce. Each episode covers, in serial fashion, events in the lives of three or four of the couples. And here they are:
• James and Chelsea (Brian Palermo and Andrea Savage) are still newlyweds, only married three months. James is a little OCD, insisting on brushing his teeth before engaging in some "spontaneous" snogging with his wife. The very thought that she once slept with other men makes his skin crawl. The artist and the businessman who hooked up because of the great sex—the truth is that they really don't know each other at all.
• Ethan and Eleanor (Herschel Bleefeld and Faith Salie). He is a tech nerd who plays too many video games—and gets paid for it. She is mechanically incompetent. He is always—always—horny and even more selfish. She wants some respect as a person. And she is pregnant. Neither one has really grown up, and now they have to in a hurry.
• Bill and Connie (Fred Goss and Jane Edith Wilson). Bill is suffering from depression after losing his job. Connie is a professional woman who has lost track of her inner child. She leaves sticky notes instead of talking. He won't shut up. And they are both cheating on each other.
• Devon and Alex (Chris Spencer and Nicole Randall Johnson). This African-American couple joins the cast with the fifth episode. Overachievers who fret over every parenting decision, they take out their simmering anger on everyone around them. They are probably the least developed couple on the series and many of their storylines revolve around issues of "black identity" (awareness of racism, raising their son among white suburbanites).
The show feels like an actor's workshop, with the character pairs sitting on a couch and trying to work through their inner lives. The show switches between the therapy sessions and the couples' homes. There is a lot of arguing. Sometimes, a funny line pops out. I suspect that these were very long discussions that were ruthlessly pruned by the editors. Oddly, there are times when characters blow a line (Connie says "ricks" instead of "risks"), included here likely to make the show look more off the cuff. But it does feel more like an actor stumbling over a line than a real person.
Maybe I have seen too many improvisation workshops to really buy the characters in Significant Others as real. I can sense the craft behind the characters. Somebody said, "Selfish guy who can't grow up versus pregnant wife," or "Husband sets up friend with wife's friend on a date," and turned on the camera. I can see the moves coming for each couple. That doesn't mean that these situations are not realistic. But sometimes the acting is…well, too obvious. Watch Bleefeld as Ethan mock-retch or freak out over his sneakers. He is trying to go for farce, not reality.
Fortunately, with all the couples in the show, there are at least three subplots per episode. This means that things move quickly through each episode. But place an entire season's worth back to back, and it becomes a blur. This is probably because the show is more about talking around problems than actually seeing them unfold. This is acting as talking, not doing. When the comedic plot turns come (usually characters fighting in public somewhere), they are very brief, since we have so many couples to deal with.
What exactly is therapy accomplishing here, other than to give us something to look in on? Nobody I know has a perfect marriage, and I do recognize many of these situations from real life. I also did not find myself warming up to any of the characters enough to really care about what happened to them. In a sitcom, this is easy to deal with: characters are frequently exaggerated and hard to empathize with—which is what makes their travails funny rather than tragic. Sometimes the situations do play like sitcom plots, as when Ethan gets squicked by the prospect of having sex with his pregnant wife. (Why is it that Ethan and Eleanor's subplots are the most memorable? I can hardly remember what happens with the other couples after each episode ends.) But the documentary feel of Significant Others makes the show look too real to be funny. Instead, the anguish, frustration, and dreadful mistakes that the characters keep making just set my teeth on edge. I keep wanting to slap them. And that isn't very funny. Overall, I probably chuckled once per episode, which I cannot say is enough to keep me coming back to rewatch this show.
The DVD collection shows NBC and Bravo's desire to just get the show out of the way, stick it on a shelf somewhere, and forget about it. It might be significant to note that Bravo has already forgotten about this show too: they have pulled the official web page off their site. The only extras on this DVD set: the producers (Rob Roy Thomas and Jordana Arkin, whose prior credits were children's cartoons) provide fairly routine commentary tracks on five episodes, praising everyone but saying surprisingly little about the process of developing the improvisational material after their discussion on the pilot episode. (They do claim that there are no deleted scenes on the disc because they used everything on screen.) You might think this was just a standard scripted comedy from the way they talk. They wanted the show to be "sick and heartwarming." I'm not sure how much of either the show is. Maybe more "twitchy and cutesy."
It isn't that Significant Others is bad or offensive. It is just unmemorable. Apart from Ethan and Eleanor, who are crazy enough to sustain a conventional sitcom, the other couples tend to be more annoying than funny. I don't know that I would want to hang around with them, and following their problems from week to week—well, I can think of better things to do with my television time.
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