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All in good time: ABC's Happy Endings falters at first, then finds its footing

The six friends of Friends, er, Happy Endings. ABC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, April 13th at 8:30 and 9 p.m. on ABC
Starring: Elisha Cuthbert, Casey Wilson, Damon Wayans, Jr., Zachary Knighton, Eliza Coupe, Adam Pally
Produced by: David Caspe

It begins pretty clumsily with a wedding stoppage scene straight out of The Graduate.

Friends also quickly comes to mind.

Still, this is an otherwise new ABC comedy called Happy Endings. And after viewing three available episodes, let's dust off another old saw: All's well that ends well.

Premiering post-Modern Family with back-to-back episodes Wednesday, Happy Endings quickly gets its game in gear. Save for Modern Family and The Middle, it emerges as ABC's best new sitcom since Better Off Ted unfortunately failed to find an audience. No need to repeat that history.

Elisha Cuthbert likely is the best-known cast member after playing Jack Bauer's oft-imperiled daughter, Kim, on 24. This time she's Alex. But the scene-stealer is Casey Wilson, who never quite broke through on Saturday Night Live but fully registers on Happy Endings as loud, madcap Penny.

The first of Wednesday's two episodes, plus the scheduled April 20th and 27th half-hours, were submitted for review on ABC's media website. All have something going for them, particularly the last one in line, subtitled "Mein Coming Out." This is the one where Penny's accidental blind date turns out to be a Mr. Right whose only drawback is his surname -- Hitler. Meanwhile, gay Max (Adam Pally) is still using his gal pals as beards rather than come out to his occasionally visiting parents.

Rounding out the cast are Jane and Brad (Eliza Coupe, Damon Wayans, Jr.) -- whose interracial marriage is peripheral so far -- and decimated Dave (Zachary Knighton), the guy who gets left at the altar when a rollerblading dude named Bo rolls into church to proclaim, "Alex, I love you!"

He's never seen again, but provides the impetus for Alex's cold feet and runaway bride remedy.

"Huge game-changer," Brad understates, concerned that the six will never be able to inhabit the same room again.

"Even I think roller blades are gay. And I had sex with a dude last night," Max needlessly riffs during these early moments of Happy Endings' awkward efforts to gain its footing. Which it eventually does, with creator-executive producer David Caspe at the helm of his first TV series.

The show's jilted Dave spends his next week in miserable, self-pitying shape while Jane (who's also Alex's sister) assures him this is all "just the sad chapter in your epic love story."

A raucous, cake-smashing 30th birthday dinner for Penny -- who remains adamant about being just 26 -- serves to lance various boils and put the six friends back into reasonable working order. And it's surprisingly good fun getting to this point, thanks to the oft-clever writing and a cast that clicks.

The April 20th edition even includes a nice little dig at Cuthbert's much-parodied altercation with a cougar (of the furry kind) on a super far-fetched Season 2 episode of 24. The three episodes also include references -- unflattering and otherwise -- to John Mayer, Kathy Bates, Paul Rudd, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But the best-in-show pop culture riff comes during Jane's recitation of her close encounters with five couples' therapists after the Alex-Dave breakup.

"The third one looked like a female Scott Bakula," she tells husband Brad. "Which just stressed me out because I am way behind on my Men of a Certain Ages. And you know how momma likes a clean DVR."

Happy Endings will move to Wednesdays at 9 p.m. (central) next week, oddly slotted on a newly expanded, wall-to-wall ABC comedy lineup between new episodes of the returning Cougar Town and Modern Family repeats.

It's going to be tough to get noticed under such circumstances. But Happy Endings will need to attract a decent-sized audience -- and quickly -- before ABC makes its mid-May announcement of a new fall 2011 lineup. Getting left at the altar a second time would not be Happy Endings' idea of a happy ending.