‘Happy Endings’ gives nod to ‘Friends’ formula

The 1990s revival continues with “Happy Endings” (8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., ABC), an unabashed attempt to return sitcoms to the days of “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” “Endings” hails from executive producer Jamie Tarses, linked to “Friends,” “Wings” and other 1990s hits.

As on “Friends,” the shenanigans begin with a runaway bride. Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Alex (Elisha Cuthbert, “24”) are ready to take their vows when a buff dude on Rollerblades careens down the aisle declaring his love for Alex. As soon as you can say, “I’ve already seen ‘The Graduate,'” Alex bolts, leaving Dave, and their posse of friends, in the lurch. They’re shocked that they’ll have to choose sides in this uncivil war.

Not to give too much away here, but Alex returns after a week or so, leaving the old gang to spend a lot of time cracking wise at diners and over brunch. Alex’s sister, Jane (Eliza Coupe), and her husband, Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.), have bought into the suburban dream and want to start a family so much that they’ve committed to a harsh and a healthy diet. Penny (Casey Wilson) is facing the big 3-0 without a man and with about 20 pounds more than she’d like. She drags a handsome if slightly brittle boyfriend to her birthday party, only to have Max (Adam Pally), the gang’s gay friend, point out that he’s probably not playing on Penny’s team. Max, too, has some extra weight and looks, say his friends, like Paul Rudd gone to seed.

As much as “Endings” leans “Friends,” it only serves to remind us how difficult it can be to establish four or five distinguishable characters on an ensemble comedy. Dave and Alex’s friends are a witty, pop-savvy bunch, even if they seem to have trouble ever branching out and making any other friends. This sense of clique-y claustrophobia is enhanced by the fact that we really don’t know what these characters do to pay the rent. “Endings” has some funny dialogue, and it arrives in rapid-fire fashion. But every character pretty much sounds the same. Having spent all of their adult years together, these folks have begun to look, and even talk, alike.

Bottom line: “Happy Endings” is not half as bad as I expected. And that makes it better than most of the sitcoms to emerge in 2011.

• “The Franchise: A Season with the San Francisco Giants” (8:30 p.m., Showtime) takes a documentary look at last year’s world champions.

• “Witness: Disaster in Japan” (9 p.m., National Geographic) examines the misfortunes in the wake of the massive earthquake.

Tonight’s other highlights

• The eight remaining contestants choose songs made famous by movies on “American Idol” (7 p.m., Fox).

• Cameron takes his love of the stage a step too far on “Modern Family” (8 p.m., ABC). Fred Willard stars on a second (9:30 p.m.) episode.

• On two episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (NBC), one case leads to many others (8 p.m.), Benson bonds with a victim (9 p.m.).

• Alyssa Milano guest stars on “Breaking In” (8:30 p.m., Fox).

• New mothers vanish on “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior” (9 p.m., CBS,).

• Violence interrupts Raylan and Winona on “Justified” (9 p.m., FX).