Can a Sitcom About a Pregnant Lesbian Rescue NBC From Comedy Oblivion?

Guess which one’s the lesbian: Kelly Brook, Nick Zano, and Elisha Cuthbert in One Big Happy.

Photo by Eric McCandless/NBC

One Big Happy, which premieres tonight on NBC, is a spectacularly unfunny sitcom, which means that it is almost certainly doomed to be short-lived. The premise: A lesbian and a straight man, best friends since childhood, agree to have a baby together, only for him to meet and marry the woman of his dreams on the very day her pregnancy test comes back positive. It seems slightly less hackneyed when you know it was inspired by events in the life of creator Liz Feldman, but it still feels like the mashup of an old Madonna movie and a balled-up piece of paper found on the floor of the L Word writers room. Its place on the TV schedule can be explained by its executive producer, Ellen DeGeneres, who, before she hosted talk shows and Academy Awards ceremonies, starred in the last network sitcom with a lesbian lead.

Ellen came out on Ellen in 1997, and while it’s shocking to think that 18 years have passed since she earned Laura Dern a toaster, a lesbian-led network comedy no longer seems all that significant. Don’t get me wrong: if I were in charge of television, the current ratio of lesbians to straight women—heck, to all other characters—would be reversed. But it’s not like there’s a shortage of dykes on TV these days. Whereas its main character’s orientation once required Ellen to be preceded by a “parental discretion” advisory, lesbians are now all over broadcast, cable, streaming services, and delivery mechanisms that weren’t even dreamed of when Ellen Morgan’s bookstore was still open for business. And how to account for the not-lesbian-but-really-not-straight female relationships on shows like Faking It, Rizzoli & Isles, 2 Broke Girls, and Broad City?

The sexual orientation of the lead might be the main reason One Big Happy exists, but it’s also the root of its failure. This isn’t a gag-intensive show—an alien seeking to understand mankind by analyzing One Big Happy would conclude that laughter is a noise humans make periodically without any apparent cause—but the “jokes” rely on threadbare stereotypes about lesbians that run the gamut from Subarus to Suze Orman. (Though to be fair to the writers, we are a change-averse people—once you cycle through The L Word, Rachel Maddow, U-Hauls, and tuxes, you’ve exhausted pretty much everything the world knows about us.)

Unlike Ellen, which, at least in its later stages, chronicled a coming out, One Big Happy focuses on a well-adjusted and proud, if slightly neurotic, lesbian, who also happens to be single and pregnant. Lizzy (Elisha Cuthbert) lives with Luke (Nick Zano), a man she loves—if not like that—and Prudence (Kelly Brook), the Englishwoman he loves. That is a new kind of TV family. What’s not so new is television’s love of girl-on-girl lip locks: In the first four episodes, Lizzy and Prudence, virtual strangers, kiss at least twice.

If there is something fresh about One Big Happy, it’s the format: NBC is known for single-camera sitcoms like 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and The Office, and this is a multicamera comedy, more familiar from CBS blockbusters like The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. Traditionally, multi-cams encourage a broader, more physical comedy, while single-cams are seen as highbrow and niche. You can’t blame NBC, whose sitcoms are generally beloved by critics but ignored by viewers, for testing the multicam waters, and it’s encouraging that when I asked Elisha Cuthbert whether she’d been reluctant to take the part, she told me she had no concerns about playing a lesbian but that she was terrified of doing a multicam, which requires actors to learn lines and perform in front of a live audience. The format even required her to change her hair—unlike single-cam shows, where the lighting is adjusted for each individual scene, multicams pre-light for the entire act, “and it was so bright my hair almost looked neon.” Between the pilot and Episode 2, Cuthbert’s hairdresser found the perfect shade of blonde. NBC is still seeking comedy gold.