Clearly, the most enviable creatures on earth right now are single or, if married, childless people in sitcoms. These privileged, youngish adults have jobs but don't seem to work very hard; they have tons of friends, with whom they hang out and exchange endlessly witty repartee. And if you're lucky enough to be part of the circle of chums that makes up These Friends of Mine, you can while away the hours coming up with clever terms for dating this show favors ''intergender ordeal'' or having a cute argument over whether the cartoon character Underdog is a person or a canine.
These Friends of Mine is an unnervingly self-conscious new sitcom starring the talented stand-up comedian Ellen DeGeneres as Ellen Morgan, a single gal who manages a bookstore-cafe and spends her copious free time with her three amigos Holly (Anything but Love's Holly Fulger), Adam (Arye Gross of Soul Man), and Anita (Maggie Wheeler). In the series premiere, the biggest problems faced by this crew are Ellen's disappointment over the unattractive picture on her new driver's license, and Holly's embarrassment over the fact that her new boyfriend barks like a dog during intercourse. (I'll wait here while you read the last half of that last sentence again. Yes, barks. Inevitably, numerous Arsenio Hall ''woof, woof!'' jokes are made, and I don't know about you, but Arsenio, dogs, and intercourse are three concepts I never want to have running together in my head at the same time.)
It's silly to criticize a sitcom for being trivial, of course. But there's a knowing wink behind every joke in These Friends that just wasn't there in, say, your average I Love Lucy or Dick Van Dyke Show episode. Part of the problem here is that the people who made These Friends, including creator-writers Carol Black and Neal Marlens (The Wonder Years), want you not merely to laugh at but to identify nay, mind-meld with these characters. They want you to poke your own friend in the ribs and say, ''Isn't that exactly what we always say?'' or ''Don't you know people who always do that?'' God bless Lucille Ball at least she never asked me to think of her as my doppelgänger.
I'm tempted to say that These Friends of Mine is about nothing because it is, wearyingly so but you know where that would lead: We'd have to pin some of the blame for These Friends' ponderous joshing on the increasingly mimicked original about nothing show, Seinfeld. And that show, as brilliant as it has been, is undergoing its own little identity crisis this, its fourth, season. The series has become something of a victim of its own success, as the subtle self-awareness that creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David built into their show has gradually become just another attitude option for lesser sitcom writers on other series. Seinfeld itself is not immune to this; recent episodes not written by David have verged on self-parody.
The ongoing Seinfeld rip-off that's fascinating whenever it's not actually annoying is the one Paul Reiser is doing weekly on Mad About You. From the hangdog expression he wears like a mask to the choppy sentences that have the rhythm, but not the content, of real jokes, Reiser is appropriating the Seinfeld attitude with casual brazenness. One imagines he must get down on his knees every few days and thank The Great Casting Agent for giving him Helen Hunt, who provides Mad with its sole element of originality. As Paul's wife, Jamie, Hunt has developed a vivid, varied character at just the moment when Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus has become more of a caricature.
But back to our original target: Maybe DeGeneres will yet turn These Friends of Mine into something worthy of her. Watching her stand-up act, I've always thought of her as an exceptionally smart, unusually honest camp counselor, and what's most dispiriting about the pilot show is the way she has dimmed her usually bright-eyed, big-smiling countenance to approximate the patented Seinfeld deadpan. Still, this is only the first episode. Apparently, Black and Marlens' involvement will be decreasing in future episodes, and DeGeneres actually does have her own, fresh comic persona to develop and deepen. Not that we want a deep sitcom, of course; that would be verging on Seinfeld territory. C