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'Undateable' Review: A Summer Comedy Worth Taking Out

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UNDATEABLE
Chris D'Elia and Brent Morin in 'Undateable.' | NBC

To write about television is to be continually flummoxed by the decisions networks make.

Good comedies like "Trophy Wife" and "Enlisted" charmed loyal audiences yet were undone by bewildering scheduling decisions. Bad comedies like "Sean Saves the World" and "The Michael J. Fox Show" got prime real estate and extensive promotion based on name recognition and little else. The aggressively bad "Mixology" got a prime slot on the ABC schedule, and NBC's gentler but no less painful "Growing Up Fisher" aired during the regular season, for reasons known mainly to those networks and no one else.

None of those shows survived the recently ended TV season, though I wish some had. Now comes "Undateable," which looks like it is getting the summer burn-off treatment (NBC is airing two episodes each Thursday starting at 9 p.m. ET). "Undateable" is a bit broad in the early going, but relatively quickly, the comedy establishes itself as the kind of amiable, sweet-and-sour, well-acted ensemble piece you'd expect from Bill Lawrence (Lawrence of "Scrubs" and "Cougar Town" is an executive producer, along with creator Adam Sztykiel).

"Undateable" is essentially a bar-hangout comedy, with an "older guy teaches younger guy the ways of the dating world" element thrown in for good measure. Earnest Detroit bar owner Justin (Brent Morin) and his friends have well-developed friendships with each other but not much luck in love. Fortunately for them, Danny Burton (Chris D'Elia), Justin's new roommate, has ample free time and is willing to teach Justin, Shelly (Run Funches), Burski (Rick Glassman) and Brett (David Fynn) all they need to know about making the right dating moves. (Danny's advice is equal-opportunity: Brett is gay but, like the rest of Justin's friends, uncertain of his skills on the romance front.)

I approached the show with some wariness, given that the potential for douchiness clings to "Undateable's" premise like a cloud of Axe Body Spray. And in the six episodes I saw, the show did occasionally slide over into eye-roll territory (for example, a line about a woman's "cans" wasn't funny-sleazy, it was just gross).

For the most part, however, "Undateable" celebrates Justin's dorky sincerity over Danny's lounge-lizard cynicism, and even Danny repudiates his own superficial pose enough to significantly undercut it over time. Those gambits help play down the more bro-ish elements of the show, but even more importantly, D'Elia plays Danny with such wily energy that it's impossible to dislike a character it would have been very, very easy to dislike. D'Elia has a loose-limbed physicality and a rubbery face designed to display an endless array of amused-cynical expressions, and he takes full advantage of both while infusing Danny with a kind of goofy charisma. It really is a perfect bit of casting, and an overdue starring role for a guy who put in his fair share of hard time on "Whitney."

Another thing that smooths over the show's occasional rough spots is the nicely calibrated chemistry between D'Elia and Morin. It's surprising to learn that "Undateable" is Morin's first full-time acting gig, given how much versatility he brings to the role. Justin is quite entertaining as a square dude who pretty much owns his squareness: He unashamedly loves bike shorts, musicals and belting out love songs. In the supporting cast, Funches and Fynn are particularly effective. They're not given tons to do -- the focus is squarely on the Danny-Justin bromance -- but both actors make the most of what they get.

You might read this review and then watch the first two episodes and wonder at my assessment, given that there's some shoutiness and clunkiness in the early episodes (the female characters, not surprisingly, are underwritten and generic, though Briga Heelan is particularly charming nonetheless). I almost wish folks would start with next week's episodes, which display the gang's rhythms and timing to better effect.

That said, "Undateable," a show that does not set out to reinvent the multi-camera hangout comedy but execute that format reasonably well, turned out to be a generally pleasant surprise. The show is ultimately about a battle between two different sub-strains of masculinity -- the uncaring superficiality of the serial dater versus the open-hearted, goofy risk-taking of the classic romantic. If you've seen any of Lawrence's other shows, you know which side is ultimately going to win -- and that it wasn't really a fair fight to begin with.

The first two episodes of "Undateable" arrive on NBC at 9 p.m. ET and 9:30 p.m. ET Thursday.

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