Earnest Pettie, comedy writer
Doesn’t this look funny? No?
I feared it from the very first promo I ever saw for Accidentally on Purpose. I feared that the show about a fertile older woman, hooking up with a younger guy, would be the most sterile half-hour on television this fall. It wasn’t what I wanted– I’ve been a Jenna Elfman fan for a decade now, despite her incredibly low output. Unfortunately, it was what happened.Accidentally On Purpose is about a thirty-something film critic in San Francisco who hooks up with a twenty-something guy on a whim, getting pregnant after their adventurous night of passion. The sitcom is adapted from a novel, but it seems to owe as much to the success of Judd Apatow’s creative output (particularly Knocked Up) as anything else. The difference between Knocked Up and this half-hour of comedy is that Judd Apatow’s characters are filled with the granularity that comes from fully-fleshing out a character. All of the characters in Accidentally On Purpose are drawn from the thinnest of sketches.
Jenna Elfman’s character, Billie, is a wishy-washy film critic, who can’t seem to decide what she wants out her relationship with Zack, an aspiring chef who is, for lack of any other attribute, young. Billie’s sister, Abby, played by Lennon Parham, is nervous, and Billie’s best friend, Olivia (Ashley Jensen), is brash. Sadly, that’s all we really know about these characters, and I won’t even bother describing Zack’s friends, who have nothing to distinguish them.
The pilot crammed weeks worth of relationship into twenty minutes. We went from Zack and Billie’s meeting, to Billie’s missed period, to Zack’s moving in with Billie in minutes and missed out on any real development of their characters or their relationship. The pilot was directed by Pamela Fryman, who has handled the direction on all the episodes of How I Met Your Mother. Given the serial nature of How I Met Your Mother and the clever way with which How I Met Your Mother handles time and narrative, it’s clear why Pamela Fryman was asked to helm this show. The first season will be devoted to Billie’s unfolding pregnancy and the evolution of her relationship with Zack. The problem is that from the outset of How I Met Your Mother, the audience had distinct characters to relate to and a narrative trajectory that seemed it could go anywhere. Short of an abortion, which isn’t your usual sitcom fodder, there’s only one real direction this show can go.
All these things could be forgiven if the script were filled with great jokes, but it’s not. Nope, this show is worth neither Jenna Elfman’s screwball talent nor Pamela Fryman’s skills at directing large ensembles.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much the show feels it exists in a void. I will guess that Accidentally on Purpose is shot and edited and then shown to a studio audience to provide the laughs. It doesn’t feel like the actors are performing for anyone, and that, really, is the strength of the traditional sitcom–the performing for an audience. Because the actors don’t seem to be playing to empty room, which makes the show feel lifeless, and that is especially sad given that the show is supposed to be celebrating the creation of a new life.