NBC’s Undateable is set in present-day Detroit, Michigan and plays this fact for laughs approximately one time in the six episodes that have aired so far. This is its main fault; most great comedies make great use of the cities in which they’re set. Curb had Los Angeles, Seinfeld had New York City. Often the nature of a show is dependent on where its set, but the fact that Undateable is filmed in front of a live studio audience makes it somehow more germane and less specific to Detroit and its comedic possibilities.
Like other sitcoms, this one is set in a bar and follows its fastidious, young owner Justin, his sexy, swaggering roommate Danny, and their motley crew consisting of Danny’s sister, a gay man, a black man, a openly misogynist nerd, and a hot female server. While the variety of the group unfolds many possibilities, unfortunately these roles are mostly played to stereotype. While I laughed out loud many times over the past six episodes, I can’t help but feel empty about most of the characters; the two main men find ladies very early on, and the ancillary characters languish listlessly in the background, ready to serve up another clever off-color joke or ubiquitous cultural reference when needed. But the show doesn’t seem to be addressing any central problem that would give it more focus. No one is really in jeopardy; nothing much is at stake. And ultimately, for a show to be set in Detroit in 2014, as the city goes through the insane bureaucratic process of insolvency, and not address any of this is the worst kind of audience letdown.
For a show like Undateable to make it another season (and possibly the rest of this one), it will need to establish a problem, preferably one which connects to Detroit’s problems at large, giving it a more empathetic context. Perhaps its characters might not seem so flat if they discuss, openly struggle, and make fun of the crippling issues of public service, safety, corruption, and government failure that they could. A comedy like Broad City highlights the complexities of getting around, working, and living in New York City, but in Undateable, we miss out on all the potential fun, being constricted by the format to scenes set in the apartment and the bar. I’ll be tuning in for the laughs, but I just wish the show would give us something memorable.
Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at email@example.com.