It's a time-proven format for romantic comedy: Balance the more or less conventional love story between one couple with a more volatile relationship between their best friends.
Shakespeare used it brilliantly in "Much Ado About Nothing," where lovebirds Hero and Claudio watched their best buds Beatrice and Benedick banter their way into love. In "La Boheme," Puccini juxtaposed the doomed love affair of Roldolfo and Mimi against the hilariously explosive relationship between their friends Marcello and Musetta. And, far more recently, the international hit "Gavin & Stacey" gave as much weight to the love/hate relationship between best friends Smithy and Nessa (James Corden, Ruth Jones) as it did to the title couple (Mathew Horne, Joanna Page).
Now, executive producer Matt Tarses ("Scrubs") goes back to that well with happy results in "Mad Love," the breezy new comedy series airing Mondays on CBS.Last week's pilot set up the basic premise, as New York attorney Ben Parr (Jason Biggs, "American Pie") bumped into the woman who just might be the love of his life -- beautiful but battle-scarred and romantically wary Kate Swanson (Sarah Chalke, "Scrubs") -- in an iconic setting, the top of the Empire State Building. It was pretty much love at first sight for both of them, but the relationship hit a speed bump almost immediately in the form of the girlfriend with whom Ben was in the process of breaking up.
Meanwhile, their best friends -- Larry Munsch (Tyler Labine, "Reaper"), an acerbic lawyer, and Connie (Judy Greer, "Miss Guided"), a surly nanny -- took an instant dislike to each other, engaging in a non-stop barrage of insults. But wait: Are they protesting a little too much?
"There's this attraction (between Larry and Connie) that will play out over the course of the show," Tarses explains. "Obviously they're grown-ups, and they don't have to hang out with each other if there weren't something deep down that they wanted to a little bit. So they kind of enjoy that combative thing they have, and over time, hopefully, they'll come to realize that."
As all of that suggests, while Larry and Connie may look like second bananas in the pilot, their story quickly takes on just as much importance as the romance between Ben and Kate, which is very good news for the many fans of comedy pros Greer and Labine.
"I think this show is very much an ensemble, but in order to build the world that we are asking (viewers) to be a part of, we had to make (the pilot) very Ben-and-Kate-heavy," Greer explains. "But once you get past the pilot, it's obviously a four-hander. The second episode is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.
"It's always interesting to play the character who doesn't fall in love right away. You're forced to be around your (potential boyfriend), but what comes of that? You have to navigate the fact that you are not dating one person, you are dating everyone in their life. So Connie is thinking 'Do I really like this guy, or is it just because I am around him that much? Would I really like him if Ben and Kate were not together?' "
Labine agrees that viewers may find the will-they-or-won't-they dynamic of Larry and Connie's relationship more intriguing than the more straightforward romance between Ben and Kate, but it's a mistake to assume the latter couple is going to enjoy smooth sailing in their relationship, either.
"We want to be the couple that maybe the audience starts rooting for'' he says. "That's a smart television tool to use, juxtaposing this relationship against a fairy-tale love story. I think we can all relate a little more about how you kind of stumble through falling in love, and it's kind of messy, and you don't recognize the person you are meant to spend the rest of your life with even though they're standing right in front of you, insulting you and calling you fat.
"That's the way it is. You have a lot of your friends going 'I think you ought to look a little bit closer at so-and-so. You guys would be a great couple,' whereas you have that playground reaction of 'Eww, gross!' That's kind of what the show is going to evolve into for Connie and Larry, I think, but as for the 'fairy-tale couple,' Sarah and Ben, who knows? Maybe it will turn out that it's tougher for them to stay together than us."
There's something of a lovefest going on off-camera as well. Labine and Chalke have known each other for years, having starred in the Canadian Robin Hood takeoff "Robin of Locksley" while they were teenagers, and Chalke is a longtime close friend of Greer, which makes it easy to play their on-camera friendship.
"Oh, yeah, that totally saves so much time, because we have a history together that we can call upon just in our heads in our scenes," Greer says. "I know Sarah. I understand her timing, her sense of humor. She is one of my closest girlfriends, so I have a genuine love for her. That helps immensely.
"When 'Mad Love' came about, once Sarah was involved, I was like a dragon with my agent: 'Get me this job!' "