To judge by the new back-to-back sitcoms PARTNERS (Fox, Mondays, 9-9:30 p.m.) and NED AND STACEY (Fox, Mondays, 9:30-10 p.m.), marriage is one of the trickier things to pull off nowadays. Hence both of these shows offer a twist on the institution. In Partners, Jon Cryer stars as Bob, a guy whose best friend, Owen (Tate Donovan), will soon be wedded to Alicia (Maria Pitillo). Bob's taking it pretty hard. A pushy shlub whose own luck with women has been bad, Bob has attached himself to Owen like a leech, which makes for a certain amount of competition with Alicia.
In Ned and Stacey, Wings' Thomas Haden Church is Ned, a bachelor advertising executive who one day just up and marries a stranger, Stacey (Debra Messing, NYPD Blue's Dana Abandando), because he thinks he'll get an upcoming promotion if he looks like a settled fellow with a wife. For her part, Stacey agrees because ... well, because Ned has a great apartment and she's looking to move away from her overbearing parents.
It's not being too mean to say that both Partners and Ned and Stacey are shows conceived in cynicism and redeemed by talent. These series lift the breezy, bantering tone of television's currently most imitated shows Friends and Seinfeld and add the element of matrimony to distinguish themselves from the sources they're ripping off. Fortunately, each also has a distinctive element. In Partners' case it's director James Burrows (Cheers, Friends), who manages to freshen the dowdy look and pace of this show (it occasionally plays like a 30-year-old Neil Simon comedy) by giving the actors funny bits of staging and surprising line interpretations. (Burrows will direct a half-dozen episodes.)
In Ned and Stacey, the big plus is the performance of Church, whose smart, smug Ned couldn't be more removed from the dumb mechanic he played on Wings. It's really difficult to turn a smarmy guy into a likable protagonist, but Church pulls it off here; you root for Ned because, in addition to getting all the good punchlines, he's easily the most intelligent, energetic person on screen.
Both shows also benefit from unexpected subtexts. Partners, for example, takes pains to tell us that Bob is straight, but the way his relationship with Owen plays out, he's deployed as a gay character. One of the pilot's big jokes is that everyone in the architectural firm where Bob and Owen work stops and stares when the two men embrace (Owen has just told Bob the joyous news that he's marrying Alicia). When Owen decides on a wedding date without first consulting Bob, Cryer delivers the line ''I just don't know who you are anymore!'' in his hissiest, prissiest manner. Partners would be more interesting if Bob were gay, since both his friendship with Owen and his competition with Alicia would be that much more intricate and charged. But even buried, this theme has possibilities.