Television history tells us that lawyers generally are not the most lovable souls on the planet (Ally McBeal excepted). Thus, building a romantic comedy around a pair of married barristers may just rank as the boldest move of the 1999-2000 fall primetime season. The producers of this amiable enough sitcom do manage to mix in some yucks, coming up with what amounts to a poor man’s “Mad About You” in a daffy law firm (“Mad About Suits”?).
In a pilot altogether contrived, leads Kevin Pollak and Nancy Travis lack even the thinnest semblance of chemistry. Pollak exudes smart-alecky angst, while the lovely Travis displays a more unrestrained sass. Exec producer Stephen Engel’s formulaic teleplay, in tandem with Pamela Fryman’s inconsistent direction, leaves the impression that the pair are performing in two entirely different shows. Their comic timing with one another is off-kilter.
Too bad, because Pollak and Travis have earned their stripes laboring in the comic trenches over a lot of years. Each has great personal appeal, particularly Travis. She was superb in the underrated CBS sitcom “Almost Perfect.” She’s terrific here. But once again, she’s cruising on all cylinders inside the wrong vehicle. And in this timeslot (leading out of “Cosby” Wednesday nights at 8:30), the target demo is already tuned to the surprise ABC sticker “Norm” and “Dateline NBC.” Terribly promising it’s not.
Most glaringly, “Work With Me” suffers from chronic People Don’t Really Talk Like This Syndrome. They don’t much act like Jordan Better (Pollak) and his wife Julie (Travis), either. Early on in the premiere, Jordan reacts to being passed over for a promotion by quitting his lawyer job at a stuffy firm. His new plan: move right in as his wife’s law partner. Hey, they never see each other. Now they’ll see each other all the time!
Well, things go somewhat less than smoothly for Jordan and Julie, doncha know. Julie openly flirts with a client (“Love Boat’s” Ted McGinley), inspiring the client to put moves on her with hubby Jordan right across the hall. The sniping begins.
Yet J and J are positively professional compared to their assistants Stacy (Emily Rutherfurd) and Sebastian (Ethan Embry), who have been secretly dating for months. But, whoops, now they have to share adjoining desks, putting a major crimp in their phone sex plans. The two slink and guffaw their way through the premiere as if struggling to survive the third grade. Ditto A.J. (Bray Poor), the stressed-out relaxation therapist who works next door. He appears to have been raised by wolves.
There are a few inspired moments in the pilot, specifically a flashback sequence in which Jordan is recalling his resignation with an amusing spin. And a clever line pops out once in a while, such as Jordan’s response to Julie’s describing their office as not a Wall Street but rather a “Sesame Street” firm: “Then we’ll be like Bert and Ernie, only without the gay overtones.”
The key question with “Work With Me” is where it might be able to take its single-joke premise from here. No clear answer emerges. Perhaps it never will. Tech credits are pretty decent.