When TV Land debuted Hot in Cleveland last summer, the nostalgia network lucked onto a winning formula: Take veteran sitcom actors (Valerie Bertinelli, Betty White, etc.) and cast them in familiar/cliché sitcom roles and storylines. With Cleveland one of the top shows on basic cable it’s not surprising TV Land wanted to reproduce its success.
Enter Fran Drescher’s new sitcom, Happily Divorced, which debuted to solid ratings on Wednesday. (With Cleveland‘s season premiere as a lead-in, Divorced nabbed 2.4 million viewers.) The series—based on Drescher’s real marriage to Nanny co-producer Peter Marc Jacobson—sees her and her husband (Best in Show’s John Michael Higgins) renegotiating their relationship when he comes out to her after 18 years of marriage.
“[It’s] inspired by our story, because Peter is now living as an openly gay man, but Peter and I split up before he came out… That wasn’t the reason why we split up, and I was the one who ended the marriage, and he didn’t want it to end. It was only after that, and [The Nanny] ended, and he moved 3,000 miles away and went into therapy that he started to connect with his true orientation.”
Sadly, while the truth may be stranger than fiction its not necessarily more humorous: After watching the debut episode, we can confirm that not only is Divorced somewhat clumsy and insulting—it’s plain just not funny.
The first mistake was opening the show with Fran’s husband confession (made in bed after having sex during The Tonight Show). Instead of screaming or crying, Fran’s character (named Fran, natch) responds with the kind of ho-hum annoyance one reserves for burnt casseroles and forgotten anniversaries. In fact, the whole episode feels like an Everyone Loves Raymond rerun, with Fran’s ex cockblocking her on dates, her sassy best friend providing support and a too-loud laugh track telling you when something’s funny. We get that TV Land is aiming for older viewers who may not click with the metahumor of 30 Rock and The Office, but Divorced feels like it was shot in 1997. (You know, when gays were wacky, stylish and asexual.) With shows like Modern Family and Glee presenting more well-rounded (and still funny) gays, there’s really no excuse for this kind of laziness.
Of course it’s possible the show will get more nuanced as the season continues. We want to give Drescher and TV Land the benefit of the doubt—except that since Happily Divorced is aimed squarely at Middle America, it’s unintentionally sending an all-too familiar message to a vulnerable demographic: Namely that gays are a threat to traditional marriage.