'Perfect Couples': Not perfect, but not bad either

perfect-couples-preview.jpgThere are three young-couples-hanging-out comedies coming to a broadcast network near you sometime in 2011, and on the surface it's hard to tell them apart. We've been confusing bits and pieces of "Perfect Couples," "Happy Endings" and "Friends With Benefits" in the Zap2it offices pretty much since they were announced in May.

"Perfect Couples," which has its regular premiere on NBC on Jan. 20, got to be first out of the gate with a "special preview" episode (i.e., one that won't count toward its season ratings) after "The Sing-Off" finale on Monday (Dec. 20). And while the show is clearly still finding its footing, there looks to be enough raw material there to make "Perfect Couples," if not an instantly vital cog in NBC's Thursday comedy lineup, at least a reason to stay put between "Community" and "The Office."

The episode NBC aired Monday -- in hopes of taking advantage of a fairly strong lead-in in "The Sing-Off" -- wasn't the show's pilot (nor was it the second episode the network sent to critics last week). But the setup of three interconnected couples whose relationships are a study in contrast doesn't really require a ton of exposition. Dave ( Kyle Bornheimer), Vance ( David Walton) and Rex ( Hayes MacArthur) have been friends since college. Dave is married to Rex's sister Julia ( Christine Woods); Rex is married to Leigh ( Olivia Munn); and Vance is in an almost-committed relationship with Amy ( Mary Elizabeth Ellis).

Dave and Julia are the "normal" couple; their story in Monday's episode involved whether they've fallen into a sweatpants-and-takeout rut. Vance and Amy have weird, "tempestuous" (his word) chemistry, and Rex and Leigh speak in self-help koans and think it's their job to make their friends' relationships as good as theirs. Add jokes and stir, and you have yourself a modern network comedy.

Dave and Julia seem like the kind of people you'd like to hang out with, but Bornheimer and Woods don't get to carry a lot of the comedy load in any of the three episodes we've seen so far. Munn and MacArthur are a little funnier apart than together, which leaves Walton and Ellis to provide most of the sparks. Since they're the hot-and-cold couple, it's natural that they'd get most of the more outrageous stuff to play, and while Ellis (the Waitress on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia") pretty well nails it, Walton and creators Scott Silveri ("Friends") and Jon Pollack ("30 Rock") don't quite have a handle on Vance yet.

In Monday's episode, Vance talks as though he's been taking couples classes with Rex (even before Amy tricks him into counseling). In the episodes you'll see next month, though (which in the show's timeline happen before this one), he's much looser and weirder -- and the character works better that way.

Timing can mean a lot in TV, and "Perfect Couples" will at least have that on its side against ABC's "Happy Endings" and fellow NBC show "Friends With Benefits" (even without Monday's episode, it was scheduled to beat the other two to the air). Given that head start -- and provided Silveri, Pollack and their fellow writers can sort out the usual growing pains quickly enough -- "Perfect Couples" could do just fine on NBC's all-comedy Thursday.

Did you watch Monday's preview? What did you think?
Photo/Video credit: NBC