Ryan Reynolds and Nathan Fillion's sitcom start
The obvious draw here is Reynolds, who followed this series with his breakout role in Van Wilder, starting his climb to stardom. The wiseass persona that's made him so popular (reaching its pinnacle in Deadpool) is fully on display here, a genuine comedic lead in the making as Berg, a ladies man with a heart of gold. There a boyish joy to his performance that raises the show's set-ups and plots above their traditional sitcom trappings, making them far more enjoyable. Though he has his "act" down pretty well even this early in his career, it's fun to see him trying out elements that would emerge more fully later on, like when hints of what he did in The Voices could be seen in the second season's enjoyable Halloween episode. Without Reynolds (or someone similar), the show would be far more of a Friends Lite.
As Pete, Ruccolo has the unenviable job of being in Reynold's shadow, which is made no easier because his character is drifting through relationships and careers, never quite happy with where he is at the moment. It makes him a bit hard to root for, as he comes off as more of a loser than he should be, particularly when he continuously throws away good things, like first-season girlfriend Melissa (future filmmaker Jennifer Westfeldt.) Howard's Sharon isn't much better, serving as something of a prototype for Kaley Cuoco's Big Bang Theory character (complete with a distracting hairstyle change.) A definite cute ditz who can still hang with the guys, she lives up to some unfortunate female stereotypes, and when paired with blue-collar second-season addition Johnny (Nathan Fillion), her character often is shrill, materialistic and cruel, and rarely goes an episode without heavily fighting with her supposed love. These two triggered my Seinfeld allergy hard, as watching unlikeable people is difficult for me.
Despite airing for only four seasons, the show saw a dramatic number of changes from premiere to finale, not the least of which was the title, which dropped "the Pizza Place", as the location became less of a focus (before it was completely abandoned in season three.) Series regulars Julius Carry (pizza shop owner Bill), David Ogden Stiers (M.A.S.H.), who plays a local loon who shares movie plots as memories, and Westfeldt didn't survive the first season. Though the show is meant to center around Berg, Pete and Sharon, as the seasons go on, the focus expands to include Fillion as Sharon's put-upon, penny-pinching boyfriend-then-husband and Berg's cold-blooded colleague Ashley (Silicon Valley's Suzanne Cryer, who shows here her HBO role is far less an imitation of Christopher Evan Welch than previously thought.) However it's another side character who becomes a key element of the show later in the show's run, as crackpot neighbor Irene (Jillian Bach) transitions from the obsessive across the hall to a genuinely enjoyable, utterly adorable and altogether kooky part of the show, her crazy side wisely dialed down over time. Her appeal is most obvious when she's paired with Berg, as they play off each other to great effect, with Reynolds' wiseass nature mixing well with Bach's sweet brand of insanity.
Though the series often trafficks in very traditional sitcom tropes and rather easy gags, it managed to surprise regularly, whether with its unusually fantastical Halloween episodes, including one of the show's most memorable, or convention-breaking entries like the wordless "The One without Dialogue" and the musically-narrated shows featuring the Barenaked Ladies and The Dan Band. It could also wring laughs out of well-worn territory, mostly thanks to Reynolds' delivery and an unexpected amount of physical comedy. The biggest surprise however is in how the show was almost serial, telling ongoing stories about the characters and following through on the repercussions of their actions, as well as its willingness to get serious, which it did frequently as the characters struggle with adulthood and problematic relationships. This can make the show uneven at times, as the show's sex gags and insult comedy butt up against genuine emotion.
The series has some ancillary attractions as well, with the late-'90s/early ‘00s fashion being key amongst them. Though the guys are usually pretty low-key clothing-wise, the woman are always in very period-specific outfits that will bring back memories to anyone who was young at the time. (So many chokers and belly shirts.) The other hidden joy is the wealth of oddball cameos and bit parts for future stars, including a terrific Robert Goulet, who should have been a regular character. You've got blink-and-you'll-miss-them roles for Bill Burr, Nia Vardalos, Ali Landry and Rachel Harris, along with visits from Tiffani Thiessen, Bo Derek, Carmen Electra, Cheryl Ladd, the great Howard Hesseman and Fred Willard, The Drew Carey Show's Kathy Kinney, Dick Martin, Jon Cryer, Adam Carolla (as himself), former Boston Red Sox' star Nomar Garciaparra, Silver Spoons' Joel Higgins, Anthony Head, Scott Adsit, Blink 182 and Stephen Tobolowsky.
The show's finale came in an episode where the ending, which centered around a possible pregnancy, was voted for online. The pregnancy was supposed to be the focus of season five, but the show was cancelled. All the possible endings were filmed in advance of the vote, and all four are available on this set. Unfortunately, only one of the four is actually enjoyable, and piled together as they are here, the whole thing ends the show on a real downbeat.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks on these episodes will help remind you that it wasn't long ago that network TV audio was a basic affair, as the sound here is simple and center-balanced, though there's nothing to be concerned about either. Voices are clear and well-separated from the music and have appropriate weight to them. There's no noticeable distortion, just clean, low-fi audio.
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