In Defense of One Big Happy: It Gets Better

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I shouldn’t like One Big Happy. It’s a multi-camera sitcom in a far superior single-camera age. It has a failing Metacritic grade and a Rotten Tomatoes score below 20 percent. And it reinforces more lesbian stereotypes than a flannel-wearing rugby player blasting Tegan & Sara from her Subaru as she follows her vegetarian girlfriend’s U-Haul to their new pet-friendly apartment after their second date and fourth break-up.

But I like One Big Happy. I really do.

The first episode is jarring, I’ll admit it. The writers—led by show creator and Ellen DeGeneres Show alum Liz Feldman—go too far out of their way to make it clear that Lizzy (Elisha Cuthbert) is a lesbian who is in no way romantically involved with her best friend, roommate, and soon-to-be co-parent Luke (Nick Zano). This involves a cringe-worthy bit of physical comedy in which Luke’s newly-eloped wife Prudence (Kelly Brook) rubs her naked body against Lizzy in an awkward morning hug. The laughs never land and the portrayal of lesbianism is cartoonish at best.

But if I’m feeling generous, I can also grant that Feldman and her team probably felt pressured to use broad brushstrokes in the pilot of the first lesbian-led primetime sitcom since Ellen DeGeneres—also an executive producer on One Big Happycame out on her own show in 1997. Feldman’s softball swing for the stereotype fences makes sense in the context of selling a mainstream audience on the premise of a lesbian having a child with a newlywed straight man. The finished product isn’t the savvy dose of humor that lady-loving viewers like myself were hoping for, but subsequent episodes are starting to deliver on that promise.

The second episode finds Lizzy caught in the gravitational well of a toxic but irresistible ex—a painfully familiar plotline that gives Feldman a chance to put her firsthand knowledge of lesbian culture to good use. A scene in which Lizzy and her ex Erica dance around their underlying incompatibility in favor of mutual compliments and a makeout session almost can’t be funny because it hits so close to home. As Tegan & Sara put it on Twitter:

More importantly, the jokes finally start to settle into a rhythm this time around. When Prudence unexpectedly kisses Lizzy in front of Erica in order to pose as her new girlfriend, Lizzy’s straight-married older sister shivers with excitement and blurts out, “God, I miss college.” It’s a moment when the laugh track feels warranted.

And freed from the expository constraints of the pilot, the cast members are finally beginning to shine. In the pilot, Luke comes across as the obligatory straight white guy, both in terms of narrative structure and demographic appeal. But in subsequent episodes, One Big Happy dives deeper into his goofy, big-hearted and, yes, occasionally paternalistic relationship with his lesbian BFF. Zano plays the character that’s endearingly energetic without ever being manic. When Erica tries to woo Lizzy back, he leaps to her defense, saying, “You hurt her, you hurt me! We’re like one person with one heart, two brains, four arms, a penis, a vagina, and I guess two sets of teeth.”

“Luke, I got this,” Lizzy fires back.

One Big Happy allows Luke to be a sometimes domineering if well-intentioned friend but the show never steamrolls Lizzy’s autonomy.

For her part, Cuthbert is a delightful comic presence with a special knack for the facial overacting that multi-cam shows require. In the third episode, Lizzy discovers that her new gym crush is also a nurse at her OB/GYN. Luke explains the co-parenting situation to her, reiterating that “this is a no-wiener zone” as he moves his hand back and forth from Lizzy’s neck to her feet. Cuthbert grabs his hand, moves it all the way to the top of her head, and gives her crush an adorable winking nod that can only be described as Barbara Eden-esque.

Even Prudence, who was definitely the weakest link in the pilot—the sort of one-note character that can only work in front of a studio audience—is growing into the show’s much-needed wildcard. When Lizzy and Luke are upping the ante on each other while celebrating their upcoming OB/GYN appointment—with lines like “We are crushing this pregnancy!” and “This pregnancy is our bitch!”—an overeager Prudence chimes in with “We are killing this baby!” before realizing what’s coming out of her mouth. As AfterEllen’s Elaine Atwell writes in her recap, it’s a joke that is “both darkly hilarious and one of the first moments that successfully paints Prudence as endearing.”

One Big Happy is still far from perfect. It can sometimes feel more like a bizarre window into an alternate version of 1990s television in which homophobia does not exist than it does like a modern sitcom. It has plenty of broad comedy filler between increasingly frequent moments of brilliance. And it’s hard not to picture what this show could look like if it were a big-budget single camera show in the style of Modern Family because its depiction of DIY insemination and family-building seems strangely more worthy of the name.

But its shortcomings aside, One Big Happy is settling into an affable groove. In lesbian terms, I don’t know if I want to move in with One Big Happy just yet, but I’m more than happy to keep spooning with it on Tuesday nights, especially if it keeps improving at this rate. And if NBC breaks up my relationship with the show after a six-episode first season, I’m going to spend a lot of time dreaming about what could have been.

So if you had a bad first date with One Big Happy, you might want to consider picking up the phone again. You can no more judge a sitcom by its pilot than you can a book by its cover and, much like being gay, One Big Happy gets better.

Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast as well as a Daily Beast contributor. Follow her on Twitter.

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