NBC's 2010-2011 comedy first impressions: Romantic comedy balances workplace hijinks

becki-newton-love-bites-320.jpgNBC originally intended to introduce a new comedy hour to its weekly line-up in the fall of 2010, on a new night. After some scrutiny, however, the network decided that since its Thursday night comedy line-up has become its signature, it would be remiss to add half-hour sitcoms to any other day of the week.

So, Thursday it is. In addition to old staples like "30 Rock" and "The Office," NBC has ordered episodes of four new half-hour comedies. With a few unexpected shake-ups, including moving critical favorite "Parks & Recreation" to mid-season, the network has managed to find room for four new half-hour comedies over the course of their 2010-2011 season.

Zap2it was on the scene at the 2010 NBC Upfront Presentation in New York City on May 17 to get a first look at the new comedy line-up. Here are our first impressions.

"Outsourced" ( watch clips)

It's no secret that workplace comedies have performed well for NBC. "The Office" is arguably the cornerstone of its comedy line-up, and "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation" have cemented its signature Thursday night style. "Outsourced" follows suit, with an extremely topical: this workplace happens to be an outsourced novelty gift company, now in India. Newcomer Ben Rappaport stars as Todd, the call center manager who is sent to manage the new outsourced call center in India. He's likable, if a bit smug - but if we've learned anything from Jim Halpert, it's that smug works.

Though we've all experienced the frustration of calling a customer service line only to be met with someone who is difficult to understand (or, worse, someone who doesn't understand us) "Outsourced" may be pushing the boundaries of political correctness. It reminds us of The CW's failed "Aliens in America" with its often-imbalanced mix of mockery and respect for a new and unfamiliar culture. We think that the success of the series will ride on the budding romance between Todd and Asha (Rebecca Hazlewood), and on Diedrich Bader, who plays an embittered colleague who can't bring himself to appreciate Indian culture.

"Love Bites" ( watch clips)

Other than "Outsourced," NBC's new comedies veer decidedly in the romantic comedy direction. "Love Bites," which stars the adorable Becki Newton as a naive, virginal idealist, is more of an anthology than a series. "It's not 'Love Bites' like a vampire show," Newton told Zap2it at the upfronts. "It's 'Love Bites' like little bites of romance. A story here, a story there." As with popular movies "Love Actually" and "Valentine's Day," each "bite" stands on its own while subtly contributing to the greater story.

We enjoyed the "Love Bite" we previewed at the Upfront primetime presentation, in which Greg Grunberg (now promoted to series regular since the official cancellation of "Heroes") plays a happily married tattoo artist who ends up sitting next to Jennifer Love Hewitt on the plane. Coincidentally, she's the only person on his "celebrity exempt list": people he gets to cheat on his wife with. The short clip was quite compelling. In fact, NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth was particularly frustrated when he missed the reveal of what happens once Grunberg's character and Hewitt head to the airplane lavatory.

Though we're not sure how the public will take to the anthology style, we see potential in this series. If future guest stars are as willing to poke fun at themselves as Jennifer Love Hewitt is, this may quickly become a hot-ticket show for celebrities to drop in on, much like "Glee" and "30 Rock."

"Friends with Benefits" ( watch clips)

The rollicking rom-com fun continues with the mid-season line-up. "Friends With Benefits," from the writers of "(500) Days of Summer" may not have been the most original script we've ever read, but the characters keep the slightly played-out premise feeling fresh.

Within the first few moments of the preview, Ryan Hansen and Danneel Harris impressed us with their chemistry. Hansen plays a guy who is oblivious to his feelings for his BFF (Harris), who he sometimes sleeps with. We're already rooting for these two to get it together.

Hansen is best known as Dick Casablancas from "Veronica Mars" and the-guy-who-is-just-like-Dick-Casablancas from "Party Down," and Harris is best known as the vapid hot chick from "One Tree Hill" and the "Harold and Kumar" series. With their history of playing shallow characters, we weren't expecting these actors to be as endearing as they were. If the creators can inject a little of the "(500) Days" whimsy into this one, we can see it lasting.

It did sort of bug us that Jessica Lucas ("Melrose Place") is playing another character named Riley. It makes this seem like a "Melrose" spin-off... which it most definitely is not. Come on, they couldn't have renamed the character?

"Perfect Couples" ( watch clips)

This relationship comedy might be a little too over-the-top for our taste. During a game of Taboo one couple fights. "You can not stand to see me succeed," Amy (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) shouts at her husband (Dave Walton). "This is why you wouldn't let me audition for 'American Idol'!"

And then she promptly breaks into song. No, seriously. "I Am Telling You" from Dreamgirls is her song of choice.

If this reminds you of something Phoebe or Monica would have done on "Friends," you're not alone. While watching the preview, we couldn't shake the feeling that we've seen this show before. Plus, the amazingly charismatic and spontaneous Olivia Munn is wasted on her preppy, uptight character Leigh. We wish she'd chosen a role that played to her strengths!

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Photo credit: NBC