Somewhere trapped inside this shrill, irritating comedy is a better show that emerges only in fleeting glimpses, amid the manic tone and Catskills-comic humor. Three high school chums 20 years later — plus the fallen class valedictorian — find themselves at personal crossroads, thus becoming each others’ “in case of emergency” on applications. Cute, but the real emergency here is a show that mistakes decibel levels for humor, as if the writers were getting paid on a per-joke-attempt basis. Throw in a timeslot opposite “American Idol,” and it all spells out “S-O-S.”
At the outset, divorced Harry (Jonathan Silverman) goes to a massage parlor where he finds himself staring up at Kelly (Kelly Hu), who quickly drops her Pidgin English upon being recognized as their class valedictorian. They’re forced to flee the premises together when her crazy-jealous boyfriend shows up, yielding the show’s one solid recurring gag, squeezing the stunning Hu into left-over clothes from Harry’s ex. (One snug T-shirt reads, “You had me at Shalom.”)
Kelly doesn’t remember Harry, a sad-sack if there ever was one. Unfortunately, his two friends — perhaps less dweeby in high school — aren’t much better off: Jason (David Arquette), who is contemplating suicide due to a corporate scandal; and Sherman (Greg Germann), a successful diet guru (the author of “Eating for Mommy”) who discovers his wife has taken off and immediately tumbles off the wagon — or rather, the Twinkie truck.
In the pilot directed by Jon Favreau and written by Howard Morris (most recently of ABC’s “According to Jim”), the show hinges on high-school ambitions and dreams not panning out as planned. When Kelly confesses she “didn’t turn out to be who I was supposed to be,” Harry replies, “None of us did.”
During those few human, restrained moments, “In Case of Emergency” isn’t bad, but alas, they never last very long. Rather, the episodes careen loudly from one over-the-top encounter to the next, with Silverman seemingly reenacting his days as Neil Simon’s Broadway alter-ego, while Arquette and Germann try to one-up him in the neurotic dept. At least Hu — not really known for comedy — manages to create a character, despite being saddled with the massage parlor-“happy ending” stereotype.
The second half-hour further develops the notion of second chances, but the madcap tone persists, until you begin to wonder when Harry, Jason and Sherman will start poking each other in the eyes and making “nyuk nyuk” sounds. An equally tedious subplot involves Jason hitting on an engaged doctor (Lori Loughlin), to the point where he actually injures himself to prompt another chance encounter.
In a nutshell, every aspect of the show screams that it’s trying too hard, continuing a tough stretch for ABC comedies only slightly atoned for by “Emergency’s” companion, “The Knights of Prosperity.” Perhaps this series will settle down into something more palatable, but with the “Idol” iceberg lurking ahead, it’s probably best to keep those emergency numbers on speed dial.