A run-of-the-mill sitcom set during an unsettling time in a young couple’s life, “Notes From the Underbelly” commences the opening episode at the moment when husband and wife are debating having a baby. Andrew (Peter Cambor) is in charge of the pros while wife Lauren (Jennifer Westfeldt) finds the con list endless, yet the two recite their concerns and wishes as if they were buying a vacation home. There’s no sign of passion here; it’s all awkward. If the two actors had a more convincing chemistry, perhaps there would be reason to believe this half-hour would last beyond the first trimester.
Show’s pedigree includes Kim and Eric Tannenbaum, former exec producers on “Two and a Half Men,” while Barry Sonnenfeld, an established cinematographer in the ’80s who has bounced between film directing and producing (“Men in Black,” “Wild Wild West”) and TV (“The Tick,” “Karen Sisco”), directs the first three episodes in addition to exec producing. He clearly wants to push some boundaries, especially in the visual sexual references. As the crux of the show is the nonstop debate that accompanies life with tykes, there’s a pingponging between individuals and couples celebrating and lamenting parenthood. Technique, in directing editing and camera work, is standard — nothing flashy but nothing out of the ordinary.
Lauren and Andrew don’t appear particularly settled in life. He’s a landscape architect, and she’s a guidance counselor at a private high school. He’s inspired by work, she’s not, and their collective ambition seems to be this odd desire to go whitewater rafting before they start having children. They seem less well off than their friends, though they live in a rather nice Spanish-style home on the west side of L.A.; perhaps there is more dramatic comedy to be milked from the have and have-not situation that is only hinted at in the initial segs.
Early in the first episode, the extensive use of Andrew’s voiceover indicates “Notes” will strictly be his game. But within minutes, the perspective shifts to Lauren — sans voiceover — with a lot of screen time dedicated to her time away from her husband. But then at each show’s conclusion, it is once again Andrew whom we hear.
The Andrew character needs to develop quickly to get the audience to care about pregnancy from a man’s perspective. Otherwise, auds may well wonder why the woman’s perspective isn’t the dominant one.
As much as “Underbelly” should be dominated by the husband-wife dynamic, sitcom only generates chuckles when the debate turns to the supporting cast, particularly Lauren’s friend, the childless divorce lawyer Cooper (Rachael Harris) and Andrew’s layabout buddy Danny (Michael Weaver).
In the three episodes supplied, Cooper not only gets the best lines, Harris displays more command of her character than the other actors and steals every scene in which she appears. She’s tough, attractive, saucy and yet likable.
Another of Lauren’s pals is Julie (Melanie Paxson), late in her pregnancy with her first child and who only sees the bright side of joining what Cooper calls “the mommy cult.” It’s rainbows and roses vs. depression and diapers.
As anyone would expect, “Notes” is painted in broad strokes: Child rearing is either all fun or all evil, and there’s never even a hint of ambiguity. When Andrew decides they’re not only poor but that they’ll need more than $1 million to get their “kid” through college, he shifts into overwork mode in his job as a landscaper — oh, call it what it is, he’s a gardener — with some artistic ambition. His overwork leads only to him messing up, with no comic or poignant payoff.
ABC is debuting the series with back-to-back episodes starting at 10 p.m. on April 12 before shifting to its regular slot, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.