The opening act of a TV show needs to grab the audience, give them a reason to stay after the opening credits roll. Even more so with a pilot, the first scene can set the tone for the entire show—and help a viewer decide whether a show is right or wrong.
Manhattan Love Story’s first scene is disappointing—on the verge of offensive—as it introduces two leads who will likely fall in love, and who the show hopes viewers will fall in love with, too. The problem is from minute one, the familiar Love Story makes it a chore to feel anything but disgust or pity for the two leads.
Peter (Jake McDorman) walks down a busy New York City street, his inner monologue following him. What is he thinking about? Why, if he’d sleep with the girls passing him by of course, and that’s about it. A woman, Dana (Analeigh Tipton), strolls down a similar New York City street, and her inner voice is consumed with passersby as well, except she’s more preoccupied by their handbags. The two pass and consider each other—and for a brief moment they seem to think about something other than butts and bags—but it’s a disappointing start to a disappointing pilot.
Love Story tells the… well, story, of Peter, Dana, and, by extension, dating in the modern age. Peter works at his dad’s company, which makes trophies (America’s obsession with awarding mediocrity has been a huge boon to the trophy-selling business). Dana, meanwhile, just moved to the big city, hoping to pursue her dream career of being a publishing editor.
Their work lives promise something other than a tired romantic plot, but the most interesting aspects of the pilot are pushed aside to track Peter and Dana’s mishap-prone first encounter. Kurt Fuller makes a brief but welcome appearance as Peter’s father, and there’s something refreshing to Peter’s sister Chloe, one of the rare characters who feels like a real person as she calls Peter out on his terrible habits.
Dana’s work life is given a bit more time. She walks in as the new hire as the latest fire is being walked out, and Dana’s bosses not only worry she wants to steal their jobs but actively try to sabotage her. It’s overly cartoonish, and the trope of the naïve girl in the big city doesn’t help the story—especially when it’s one seen recently in the better ABC sitcom Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23—but at least this plotline gives its characters a reason for their mean-spirited behavior.
Peter and Dana’s questionable romance looms over every aspect of the pilot. The two are set up on a blind date by Peter’s brother David, whose wife, Amy, went to college with Dana. Peter refuses the setup until he hears that Dana and Amy may have had an “experimental” phase together in college—a point David also says is a big reason why he married Amy. It only makes Peter more difficult to stomach as a likable leading man with stereotyping that stands in for actual characterization.
The first date is, as expected, a mess: Dana had a terrible first day at work, including being tricked into walking 40 flights of stairs by her bosses, and she begins to cry during the date. The lead-up to the night is only worsened by a weird subplot about Dana’s inability to use phones or social media, which feels as realistic as when The Newsroom attempted to show how crazy newfangled technology can be.
Peter makes things worse by mocking Dana’s New York to-do list. Amy won’t settle for the lack of harmony in her life, however, and forces Peter to apologize to her, which, again predictably, fails. Why? Because he’s a man who has no reason to apologize! And she’s distracted by the pretty flowers only until Amy’s interloping is brought up.
Peter of course returns the next morning to help her cross a few items off her list, leading to Peter crying, seemingly showing real emotion, but actually as a way to endear himself to her.
McDorman and Tipton have good chemistry together, but their characters are so difficult to like, the one redeeming quality being Tipton’s innate sweetness. Her naïve New York transplant is such well-worn territory, though, and her character lacks anything fresh to go beyond Tipton’s immediate likability. McDorman, and the script, leans into Peter’s worst traits far too much that he’s falling over himself with terrible qualities. The show doesn’t even do enough with its titular location to warrant the Big Apple’s spot in the title. The on-location shooting is noticeable, but so far, Manhattan’s place in the story is underused and, again, riddled with familiar references.
Even if Love Story can remember to be funny and build out the world of these characters, there’s still a central problem preventing the show from being an interesting take on modern dating: When one of the main characters is so inherently unlikable and the other cliché-ridden, it’s difficult to root for their happiness. Manhattan Love Story needs to give audiences a reason to love the characters and do so quickly or it faces falling by the wayside like many of its recent, much funnier ABC sitcom brethren.