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TV Tonight: Traffic Light

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In Showtime’s comedy Episodes, a pair of British sitcom producers have lunch with Matt LeBlanc, who’s considering starring in a remake of their comedy about a headmaster at a boys’ school. LeBlanc notes that it sounds like The History Boys, and the more the couple try to explain the differences, the more it does in fact sound like that play. “So,” LeBlanc says: “it’s History Boys meets you saying it’s not History Boys.”

Traffic Light, a new sitcom debuting tonight on Fox, is Perfect Couples and Better With You meets Fox saying it’s not Perfect Couples or Better With You. But in this case that’s not entirely bad.

The more you get into the details, the more similar it sounds, to those shows—which themselves are essentially the Modern Family formula applied to relationships—and to the philosophy of almost every recent network sitcom about couples. There are three couples—well, two and a half—at different stages of development. Mike (David Denman of The Office) and Lisa (Liza Lapira) are married with a young son. Adam (Nelson Franklin) and Callie (Aya Cash) have just moved in together, a leap in commitment that is causing Adam no little stress. And Ethan (Kris Marshall) is a horndog bachelor who goes from relationship to intense, short-lived relationship.

Why Traffic Light? Each of the guys, see, is at a different “light” in his life. Ethan has the green light, because he’s single. (Lest you miss the metaphor, he drives an ambulance.) Adam is slowing down at a yellow, i.e., a marriage-like commitment. And Mike, of course, is at red. Because he’s been stopped. By a girl.

On paper, it sounds like another sitcom dedicated to the tired idea that relationships are forced on men like collars on dogs, the leashes held by annoying, fun-killing women. And yet I enjoyed the show more watching it than I find I am describing it. Partly that’s because the show, over the course of the episodes, reveals that it doesn’t really sign on to this high-concept premise: each of the relationships has stress and conflicts—or else there would be no show. But it quickly becomes apparent that these men (Mike and Adam, anyway) really like being paired up, that their significant others are partners and interesting people in their own right, and that, like men in real life, they’re in relationships because they want to be.

Maybe more important, Traffic Light gets the relationships among its different subunits better than Perfect Couples. One of my issues with that NBC sitcom is that—family connections aside—the characters seem so annoying, to each other and the audience, that it’s not clear why they would want to spend this much time with each other in the first place. Traffic Light doesn’t push its characters to extremes (Ethan being the possible exception, and the weakest principal), so you can believe that all these characters actually like one another. And the show has a loose, dry humor that Franklin, in particular, pulls off well.

The show hardly seems like the rethinking of its form that Modern Family was for family sitcoms. For instance, there are way too many gags involving conferenced-in cellphone conversations in cars, which is quick becoming TV’s biggest cliché. But after the four episodes I’ve seen, Traffic Light is Perfect Couples and Better With You meets Perfect Couples and Better With You being funnier. That’s a start.