More than one writer has noted similarities between "Better Off Ted," the funny comedy premiering tonight on ABC, and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," which was also from writer Victor Fresco and which -- blessed convenience -- is coming out on DVD soon. So I looked at "Better Off Ted" and then went back to the pilot of "Andy Richter" and found some interesting differences. ...
I should say first of all that both shows have an absurdist streak, whether it's in the experiments being performed in "Ted" or Andy conversing with the long-dead founder of his company in "Richter," and both take highly amusing turns. But there's also a wistfulness to them, a romantic streak made all the more touching because the romance is not entirely successful. Richter was especially adept at conveying that tone in his loving-from-afar. It's trickier for Jay Harrington, who plays Ted, because he is a much more conventionally attractive guy than Richter. (You may know Harrington from his recent appearances as a handsome but chilly guy on "Private Practice.") But Harrington captures something affecting in Ted, a longing that adds to his charm.
And it's charm that "Ted" goes for in somewhat more ordinary ways than "Richter" did. Not that Andy wasn't a lovable guy. But "Ted" puts a heavy gloss on the formula: more good-looking people, a somewhat more benign world view (with the major exception of the terrifying, hilarious Portia De Rossi), a larger sense that things will ultimately turn out well for the central characters. ABC is taking a mild risk with a show this quirky, but it smoothes out the quirks wherever possible, making it more palatable to the chick-lit audience the network consistently pursues.
Again, I am not saying the show is bad. It has some very big laughs in tonight's premiere. I expect to be watching it more. And "Richter," as amusing as it could be, was not enough of an audience draw to last very long.