'Romantically Challenged' review: Comedically unchallenging

romantically-challenged-320.jpgIf ABC's new sitcom "Romantically Challenged," which stars Alyssa Milano, were an "American Idol" contestant, this review might go something like this:

Hi, Romantically. How you doing tonight? Well, first of all let me say, you look great, and I really do like you. But honestly, that was all over the place for me. I just didn't really get what you were going for there. I know -- "Booo." Sorry.

Because, here's the thing: Milano is gorgeous in "Romantically Challenged" as a newly divorced woman who's not sure how to be single, and she's always been a likable actress. The show, created by "Family Guy" and "The Winner" veteran Ricky Blitt and directed by sitcom king James Burrows, is fairly appealing visually and moves along at a reasonably quick pace. But something about its rhythm is off, and as a result the show never quite hits the target it wants to hit.

Also, one big caveat to the rest of this review. Late Friday (April 16), ABC decided to pull the episode that had been scheduled as the series premiere and replace it with a different episode, which wasn't made available for review. The comments below reflect my impressions of the two episodes ABC did make available:"Rebecca's One Night Stand," which was set fro April 19 but hasn't been rescheduled, and "The Charade," which as of this writing is still scheduled for April 26.

Rebecca (Milano, "Charmed" and "My Name Is Earl") is a recently divorced lawyer and mother (her teenage son is only a minor presence in the first two episodes) who is tentatively stepping back into single life. Her sister Lisa ( Kelly Stables, "Greek"), who likes her relationships short and without strings, offers encouragement and bad advice. Rebecca's guy friend Shawn ( Josh Lawson) is equally happy for her -- so much so that he makes frequent, half-serious, never-accepted offers to sleep with her -- while Shawn's roommate Perry ( Kyle Bornheimer, "Worst Week") is mostly too busy with work to deal with any of it.

So at least they're all in the bad-at-being-single thing together (although both Lisa and Shawn, who's equally commitment-averse, seem to be pretty happy with their lives, so who are we to argue?). There are hints, meanwhile, that Perry is a big softie -- one of the better lines in the first two episodes is when Shawn notes that Perry updates the arrangements for his fantasy wedding every night before bed -- but the only real relationship he has early on is his bromance with Shawn.

To its credit, "Romantically Challenged" does not seem to be playing the game of "They're perfect for each other, if only they would just open their eyes" with any of its four principal characters. Or if it is, it's not to be found in either Monday's (April 19) premiere or the episode that follows. But beyond that, the show is so loosely structured that we barely get a sense of why these four people hang out together. How do they know each other? What's their history as a group? Why did Rebecca get divorced in the first place? It's not necessary to spell out every aspect of their friendship at the top of the show, but a hint or two would be nice.

ABC's press site offers a little help -- Perry and Rebecca have been friends since they were kids, apparently -- but neither I nor you, the prospective viewer, should have to rely on crib notes to get a sense of two lead characters' relationships. (It may also be that ABC is airing episodes out of order. The premiere is labeled as episode 104, and the April 26 episode is 103. If episode 101 comes later in the show's run, you may get a sudden burst of exposition.)

There are moments here and there where the show seems to find a bit of a spark, like when Milano and Bornheimer, two talented comedic actors, share scenes together. But they get washed away pretty quickly, and it's on to the next predictable setup-punchline combination.

"Romantically Challenged" has what's theoretically a plum timeslot, between "Dancing with the Stars" and the increasingly popular "Castle" on Monday nights. Yet the late start -- there are only six weeks left in the TV season -- and the fact that Bornheimer has already secured a role in a pilot for next season don't exactly inspire confidence in the show's long-term prospects.

Then again, maybe ABC knows what it's doing, because "Romantically Challenged" as a whole adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
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"Romantically Challenged" premieres at 9:30 p.m. ET Monday, April 19 on ABC.

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