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'Mad Love' and Three Other Shows Where the Acting Overcomes the Writing

by Joel Keller, posted Feb 23rd 2011 5:00PM
Cast of 'Mad Love'While I was watching the first two episodes of CBS's new Monday comedy 'Mad Love,' an odd sensation came over me. And no, it wasn't a tingly feeling brought on by imagining Sarah Chalke and Judy Greer having nightly slumber parties, though the thought did cross my mind.

No, the sensation that hit me was one of cognitive dissonance. I was enjoying the show, even though I knew that the premise of the show was a bit of a stretch, the plots of the episodes had a lot of eye-rolling coincidences, and the dialogue coming out of the leads' mouths was at most moderately funny.

Then I realized where this confusion was coming from: The show's four leads were doing a great acting job. Three of them -- Chalke, Greer and Tyler Labine -- are on my short list of favorite TV actors in the past decade, and they all delivered their lines with deft comedic timing and a confidence that kept them from overcompensating for the mediocre material they'd been given. The fourth lead, Jason Biggs doing his most deft Josh Radnor impression, was OK, but as my colleague Mo Ryan mentioned in her review, he was no match for the other three pros on the show.

There seem to be plenty of shows on the air where some pretty damn good acting wins a viewer over, despite what could be generously thought of as "problematic" writing.

This is not a slam at the writers of those shows, though; television writers are a talented bunch, but as we all know, many times they're at the mercy of networks whose vision of a particular show runs counter to logic, good taste and any semblance of quality. Other shows are just ill-conceived from the start. And yes, some are just not written well.

But it's a curious phenomenon in a TV era where people think the writer is king: Even in the 2010s, viewers are still just fine with a show that has appealing actors doing credible work, even if the words they're saying or the situations they're in are bullplop.

It's such a pervasive notion, that you could probably name a dozen shows off the top of your head -- a lot of them are on CBS -- that you watch even though you know what's going on is ridiculous. But when I searched my memory banks to come up with the opposite, where the writing outpaces the acting, I could maybe come up with one or two shows. (I've always loved the writing on 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia,' for instance, but aside from Danny DeVito, there isn't a ton of acting going on there. Mostly yelling.)

'Mad Love' made me think of other shows I watch where the acting-to-writing quality ratio tilts heavily in favor of the cast:

'White Collar''White Collar'
Face it, you're probably not watching this show because you're interested in the clever capers that FBI agent Peter Burke and his criminal mastermind partner Neal Caffrey go on. Most of the time, in fact, I come away from an episode either scratching my head at how confusing the case was or counting the leaps of faith I had to make in order to believe they could pull things off and get the bad guy. The continuing storyline of the music box and Neal's ex Kate is intriguing, but not enough to keep me tuned in.

The reason why this show's been a hit for USA is the chemistry between leads Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer. They take what could have been very two-dimensional roles and infuse them with real human emotions, and the relationship between the two characters has only grown during the show's second season.

The supporting cast, led by Willie Garson's Mozzie, inhabit their roles thoroughly, which helps a viewer root for them every week. Even Tiffani Thiessen does a nice job as Burke's supportive wife Elizabeth, even though she only seems to get about three lines per week.

'Hot in Cleveland''Hot in Cleveland'
I keep going back to this show because of its leads, but am constantly repelled by the stale by-the-numbers writing. There's no denying that Jane Leeves, Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick and the incomparable Betty White make for a formidable foursome. There's probably about 150 years of television experience among the four of them, and it shows in how they commit to even the silliest dialogue. White has got the furthest mountain to climb, because her character of Elka is mainly written as "lets see how funny it is for Betty White to say this."

It also doesn't hurt that the show is employing a host of TV legends as guest stars. Who doesn't want to see Bonnie Franklin reunited with Bertinelli, for instance, even if she's saying that the 50-something Bertinelli is a "whore" that "should be on a pole!"? Any show that can bring Hal Linden back to TV is something other than ads for glucose meters is one I'm going to watch.

'Better With You' 'Better With You'
This is a show that, if you were to ask most people to describe it, would probably say it's "harmless." What does that mean? Well, it means that it's like sucking helium; it's fun while it lasts, but the effects are short-lived and rarely remembered.

It might be a show I watch because it's on between 'The Middle' and 'Modern Family,' two immensely superior shows. Or it might be the fact that the leads, especially Jennifer Finnegan, Debra Jo Rupp and Joanna Garcia, make such predictable sitcom writing so appealing to watch.

This is where smart casting can go a long way: Garcia is a sitcom veteran from her days on 'Reba,' Rupp and Kurt Fuller have been around forever and Finnegan and Josh Cooke already established a chemistry together on the short-lived comedy 'Committed.' Jake Lacy was the wild card, and he's grown in his role of Casey, the man-child who's engaged to Garcia's character Mia.

Last week's episode was about an unlucky jacket. Yep, that's the gist of it. It's a plot that even 'Hot in Cleveland' wouldn't touch. But in the hands of this cast, a plot that could have been a disaster became funny. Not gut-holding funny or even laugh-out-loud funny, but it was funny. If that's not a sign of great acting, I don't know what is.

Tell us: Which shows do you watch for the great acting, even though the writing is only OK?

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May 17 2011 at 7:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'd dare say Jason Biggs is better than you're giving him credit for. Remember that the character he's playing is essentially the straight man character who's meant to be outshined by the likes of Tyler Labine. I'm a huge fan of HIMYM, but I find Biggs even more endearing (and less pretentious) than Radnor's Ted. In last week's episode where he tried to befriend Greer's awesomely prickly Connie, I felt that he really held his own. I also actually find it refreshing to have a show where the "Marshall and Lily" destined-to-work couple are actually the main characters, and the "best friend" characters are the polar opposites that we know are meant for each other. All in all, I think Mad Love is way funnier than I ever expected it to be (and certainly a billion times better than Bleep My Dad Says), and I hope it sticks around.

March 28 2011 at 6:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'd put Rules of Engagement on this list. The writing isn't that spectacular but Patrick Warburton is hilarious.

February 25 2011 at 12:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mad Love, How I Met Your Mother, Retired at 35 and Sh!t My Dad Says all have the exact same lead actor. The whiny brown haired guy who is very sensitive and the butt of everyone else's jokes is getting rather old when EVERY single new sitcom stars him.

February 24 2011 at 1:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Deej Barens

I also love that the cast of Mad Love is 1/2 Canadian

February 24 2011 at 12:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Could you make this a bigger article. I totally agree with you on all the points above. I would love to see if you think this about more shows and some more shows tilted towards the writers than the actors like you hinted on. Thanks!!

February 24 2011 at 9:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Feel you on Mad Love and Better With You! Watching ML, just feels like friggin HIMYM though. It's the same style and you literally hit the nail on the head with the "Josh Radnor impression." So I have stopped watching it, but I feel horrible because the rest of the cast is really funny, their timing is great. Better With You is harmless, it's so funny you mention it that way. The cast is also witty and funny, and when it comes to the ladies you get a real sense of narcissism and the guys are just big dumb idiots. They play off of each other really well.

February 23 2011 at 6:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Bones is starting to go that way definitely. The first four seasons, the writing was stellar with only a few missteps. But since season 5, it just gets weirder and weirder. Giant plot holes, convoluted and unrealistic situations, and awkward and unfunny dialogue are more common than not. But the acting skills of Deshanel and Boreanaz and the supporting cast (especially T.J. Thyne and John Francis Daley) keep the show above water. But the writing really needs to improve.

February 23 2011 at 6:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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