CBS’ new Friday drama The Ex List lost its ace-in-the-hole last month when original showrunner Diane Ruggiero exited the series due to "creative differences."
Ruggiero, a veteran of Veronica Mars, was perhaps the breakout star of July’s Television Critics Association press tour, telling embarrassing jokes and candid anecdotes and basically giving the impression that no matter how you felt about the original pilot, this was a sort of talent you want to watch.
And I really disliked the pilot for The Ex List, but despite that animus, I was prepared to give the show a few more episodes just for Ruggiero. Now? I can save the time.
To be fair, The Ex List is a love-it/hate-it show and much of that gut reaction depends on how you respond to the core premise, which came from an original Israeli format.
For me, there are few TV/movie subsets that turn me off more swiftly than the "Beautiful woman who appears to have everything — great friends, solid job, perfect hair — and yet spends every waking hour whining about her inability to find the man she so clearly needs to validate her entire existence" genre.
That’s certainly the case with Bella Bloom (Elizabeth Reaser), she of the amusing friends (Amir Talai, Adam Rothenberg, Alexandra Breckenridge), energetic and supportive sister (Rachel Boston), successful floral shop and not-unfulfilling sex life. You’d never think to pity her, except that she hasn’t got a ring and that apparently makes her worthy of utmost sympathy. When a fortune teller advises Bella if she doesn’t find true love in the next calendar year that she’ll never get married, things go from not-at-all-bad to worse for our heroine. Then the bombshell: That perfect man is somebody from Bella’s past, forcing her to go back through what seems to be a long list of boyfriends, conquests and casual flirtations.
For the purposes of the first episode, that past boyfriend is an ultra-sensitive rocker played by Eric Balfour, whose sense of humor has rarely been utilized on an intentional level. The Hawaii, Six Feet Under and Veritas: The Quest veteran is surprisingly hilarious, which doesn’t bode well given that he’s just a guest star, forcing viewers into Balfour withdrawal.
The series’ urgency comes from that one-year deadline, though the producers of How I Met Your Mother can tell you how frustrating it is to drag out the "Is this week’s guest star The One?" conceit and that comedy doesn’t come with an artificial deadline.
Although my editor instructs me that I’m wrong to feel like The Ex List is aggressively emasculating, it will doubtlessly play better for female viewers. It’s a PG-13 rated episode of Sex and the City, in which the characters are all as self-obsessed as empathy will allow and as foul-mouthed as network standards will allow. That means a mixture of "Woe is me" mewling and catty jokes about pubic hair, the sort of thing that the producers figure will appeal to women who find themselves at home at 9 p.m. on Friday nights. However clever the writing occasionally may be — and I don’t question Ruggiero’s gift for dialogue — most men will have little interest in an hour-long lesson on how difficult they are to find, train and domesticate.
Why would men watch, then? Other than as part of a pact involving sexual favors or BBQ, the best answer would be "Because it’s a show full of attractive women," a bribe that presupposes that while some network television shows are overburdened with dowdy ugly women, The Ex List is a show in which good looks are valuable. And it’s about darned time!
Reaser, so fine on Grey’s Anatomy and especially good in the little-seen indie feature Sweet Land, is a pleasant enough lead, though she’s more comfortable with drama than comedy. As promised, Breckenridge is aesthetically pleasing, while Boston brings such infectious glee to her role that I kind of wished she were the star of the show. The men of The Ex List aren’t even vaguely memorable.
The Ex List moves into a Friday night timeslot where CBS has had some difficulties, with dwindling returns for Close to Home and then Moonlight. Both of those two cancelled shows had better shots at cross-gender appeal and nestled between Ghost Whisperer and Numb3rs, The Ex List won’t be able to sustain on female viewers alone. This is a show that needed a break and Ruggiero’s departure may have already negated its best shot at success.