Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, the creator-producers of Party of Five and the new series replacing it for six weeks, Significant Others, are the bummer masters of the prime-time universe: The duo has uncanny instincts when it comes to creating television that makes you feel good about feeling bad. The key to the success of Party of Five, for example, is its unceasing procession of disease, addictive dependencies, and restaurant-management headaches — shrewdly combined with the huggable cuteness of its sniffly, suffering sexy stars.

This season’s PO5 has achieved both its highest ratings and a Titanic-size viewer-teardrop quotient with story lines that have included Charlie (Matthew Fox) and his Hodgkin’s disease (you didn’t really think they’d give him a death sentence, did you?), as well as the alcoholism of Bailey (Scott Wolf) and his girlfriend Annie (Paige Turco). The writing has achieved an artfully stylized agony: Each episode brings each main character to a higher level of unhappiness.

There’s a precedent for this our-pleasure-in-their-pain thing Keyser and Lippman do: the work of their ABC comrades in youth sensitivity, producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick. That pair’s fabulous My So-Called Life premiered in 1994 and clearly paved the way for the success of PO5, which found and steadily built an audience in a way that the superior MSCL never managed (because Fox stuck with PO5, whereas ABC dumped poor Claire Danes and company). Unfortunately for Significant Others, the series it bears the most resemblance to is a lesser Herskovitz-Zwick product: ABC’s twentysomething downer from 1996-97, Relativity, which never made good on its initial promise of romance ‘n’ realism.

Significant Others tries for the same combo. Its trio of mid-20s chums — Campbell (Eion Bailey), Henry (Scott Bairstow), and Nell (Jennifer Garner) — are a hang-loose lovers/friends triangle trying to make it in the big, bad world. ”I think stuff is starting to count now,” Campbell says in the series debut, by which he means it’s time to start making career moves and money. So far, this has led Campbell to use family dough to bankroll ”the next fad” (he picks children’s videos; shouldn’t it be post-slacker dramas?). I side with his dad, played with finely calibrated grumpiness by Richard Masur. I just don’t have much faith in this pretty-boy schmoozer.

Meanwhile, literary Yale grad Henry has a limp job writing cyberpornography for a comely fortysomething boss (Gigi Rice) who’d like to have a fling with him. Yeee-awn — didn’t we just watch this sort of dead-end plotline floating down Dawson’s Creek? Henry gives Boss a copy of Tender Is the Night, telling her, ”You’ll read it in one sitting, and it’ll change your life.” Wrong-o, fuzz chin — that book’ll give you piles if you read it in one sitting; it’s The Great Gatsby that’s the one-sitter life changer.

Jennifer Garner’s Nell is all perky superficiality — I realize that she’s supposed to be a neurotic nice girl who can’t decide what to do with her life, but the way Garner plays her, Nell is almost clinically schizo: zippy and enthusiastic one second, mopey and despairing the next. Where’s the center to this young woman, and why is this dimpled beauty hanging around with these loser guys, neither of whom is ever going to make her happy — i.e., married? (Sorry if that sounds pre-feminist, but the way her character has been constructed — not eager for a career, yearning to be swept off her feet — it would seem that’s what Nell doesn’t realize she really wants.)

PO5 has been justly praised for its idiosyncratic yet canny casting — a process that resulted in heartthrob followings for every one of the orphaned Salinger clan and burgeoning movie careers for Neve Campbell, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Lacey Chabert (soon to be seen in Lost in Space). It’s startling, therefore, to realize that one of the most obvious flaws in SO is woeful miscasting. None of the stars are wry enough for the often clever lines that they’ve been given — Bailey, Bairstow, and Garner are (or at least are directed to be) too terribly, tediously earnest.

Beyond that, these folks just don’t come across as especially likable. In particular, Bairstow’s Henry, with his hangdog glower, a goatee that seems to grow in clumps, and a slacker uniform of T-shirt and sweater, looks like the sort of guy the Feds comb dank basements for, in search of a disgruntled anthrax manufacturer.

SO is being touted as a lighter drama than PO5, but Others‘ forced we-can-make-it cheer is far more depressing. Party is heartier, dudes. Party of Five: B Significant Others: C-

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