A pilot can make or break a show, and if it’s not so great, it can turn off any viewer from watching the rest of the series. Join 25YL as we take a deep dive into TV pilots that we found lacking in our Powering Through the Pilot series. This week, join Jason Sheppard as he looks at the pilot episode of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Got a pilot episode you love or hate (or something in-between)? Be sure and let us know!
Without question, the first half of the 1990s is often regarded as having been the era that birthed many of the greatest sitcoms of all time: Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier to name the three biggest. But the second half of the ’90s saw some of the finest shows of the decade as well. Spin City debuted to critical acclaim and huge audiences in 1996 as did NewsRadio in 1995. One show that premiered but didn’t receive the acclaim the other two did was ABC’s Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, which debuted as a mid-season replacement in March 1998.
Maybe because it was dismissed as just another Friends copycat—featuring a group of attractive 20-somethings living in spacious apartments whose career choices were as muddled as their relationships—but critics weren’t about to proclaim that pizza joints would eclipse coffee houses as the trendy place to hang out due to any culture shifts from this program. Still, the pilot was a smash with 18 million viewers (numbers network execs would die for today).
Created by Danny Jacobson (Mad About You), Kenny Schwartz, and Rick Weiner, Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place did differ from Friends in a number of ways: the show took place in Boston instead of New York, there were three main characters rather than six (though that number grew to Friends numbers by Season 3), two of the main characters were still in school, and instead of hanging out in a coffee house all day they hung out in a pizza place where the two students worked to pay for that apartment I mentioned.
Looking back on it now, it’s a miracle a show named Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place even made it on network TV, but ABC had scored with irreverent comedies that tended to break the rules of convention at the time (The Drew Carey Show, for example). And with a title like that, how could anyone not tune in to the pilot episode?
Then the questions were “How is this any different from Friends?” and “Is this show any good?” Pilot viewers got their answers. Yes, the show was different from Friends—in ways. In the opening minutes of the pilot, we meet roommates Peter “Pete” Dunville (Richard Ruccolo) and his roommate Michael “Berg” Bergen (Ryan Reynolds in his first starring role). Pete is an architecture student and Berg is a philosophy major—not exactly Chandler and Joey right there—but Pete is the wound-up ball of panic (shades of Ross Gellar) and Berg is the sarcastic charmer of the duo (in other words, the Chandler.)
In this show’s opening minutes, much like Ross in the opening minutes of that other show, Pete is wracked with stress over an impending break-up which he feels must be done. The difference here is that Pete is the one doing the breaking-up as he feels his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Melissa (Jennifer Westfeldt) has run its course.
This is how we meet Pete and Berg: spending five minutes debating why this break-up with a character we haven’t met is so important. It’s something we’ve seen a million times before, and it’s a wonder viewers never turned to see what was on NBC after the fourth minute. Fortunately, then we meet their upstairs neighbour and best friend from college, Sharon Carter (Traylor Howard). Sharon bursts into the guys’ apartment and her first words in the series are “You guys suck” as she throws an empty toilet paper roll at Berg’s head. Okay, that’s different. None of the women on Friends got an introduction like that, did they?
Traylor’s Sharon is an absolute scene-stealing charmer, and for someone who shares most of her screen time with Reynolds, that is saying something. Traylor was no stranger to TV after having starred in the mid-’90s NBC series Boston Common. We learn that Sharon is the most accomplished of the three as she works for a very successful chemical production company that pays her very well, but working for them goes against her morals. However, it affords her a really nice car that she constantly drives her vehicle-less friends around in.
Pete and Berg do work but not for a high-paying company like Sharon works for. They work at Beacon Street Pizza, a popular hangout close to their apartment. Their boss is named Bill (Julius Carrey), and this is where the pilot has some difficulty maintaining its pace. Unlike Central Perk’s Gunther on Friends, Bill isn’t given anything that interesting to do, and Carrey tries a little too hard to make his character’s unfunny lines funny. Gunther was given a “let’s have him secretly be in love with Rachel” mini-story, which worked really well as none of that show’s characters knew about this but the audience did. Some of Friends’s funniest bits were when the characters looked confused at something Gunther did or said. Now of course not every show needed a Gunther, but giving Bill something interesting outside of ordering Pete and Berg to “just deliver the damn pizza” would have made the pilot better.
So now that we’re looking at the show’s unnecessary characters, let me introduce you to Mr. Bauer played by the ever-reliable character actor David Ogden Stiers of M*A*S*H. Mr. Bauer is a regular at Beacon Street Pizza. He is an older man (which Friends did not have) who joins in on the conversations of Pete, Berg, and Sharon by relating to them storylines from famous movies—only by making himself the participant in them. For example, in the pilot when he learns Pete is breaking up with Melissa, he tells her of the time he let Ingrid Bergman get on the plane in Casablanca. In another episode, he’s Quint who battled the shark in Jaws. In another, he’s Jennifer Beals from Flashdance, and in another first-season episode, he’s Indiana Jones (and he just happens to be wearing a fedora and leather jacket in the pizza place on that exact day). There’s also another episode where he just happens to be dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi out on the sidewalk at night where—you guessed it—he performs the Jedi mind trick (successfully even) on the cops. Ogden Stires was a talented actor during his distinguished career but man, was I annoyed by this character.
I honestly did not see the point in having this character hang around the pizza place. Maybe the show’s creators knew a guy who did this in real life? The main characters usually make a nodding wordless gesture after one of Mr. Bauer’s movie stories while Pete seems to be the only one aware of how truly strange this man is.
A character who doesn’t feel wrong, though, is Melissa, and maybe it was because of Westfeldt’s immense charm and delightful portrayal. As soon as she appeared in the pizza place, my first thought was “wow, she’s adorable. And Pete wants to break up with her? Why?” Maybe it was a chance to insert a little George from Seinfeld into the character of Pete—as George found the tiniest fault in anybody as an excuse to break up with them—but who knows?
Westfeldt continued on the series throughout the remainder of the first season as Pete’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, but for some reason, ABC would run episodes out of order so it was difficult to keep track. In a Season 1 episode, “Two Guys, a Girl and an Apartment,” Pete is in one of his off-again phases with Melissa, and he spends the episode trying to form something with a new customer (Carmen Electra) who likes to paint in the nude. In the next episode, he’s back with Melissa though, but that was fine with me. It would have been terrible to introduce her to audiences early in the series only to have her disappear right away. Keeping Westfeldt was one of a number of things the first season does right.
Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place did well enough with viewers to earn a second season, but much was changed for Season 2. Bill and Mr. Bauer were both gone (yay!) but unfortunately, so was Melissa. A few new characters were introduced and they were both winning additions. Actress Suzanne Cryer (who was best known at that time as the “Yada-Yada” woman from Seinfeld and has since earned acclaim on HBO’s Silicon Valley) joined the cast as Ashley Walker, a feisty, stylish, sarcastic foil for Berg. Of course, Pete hates her, and Berg has to work with her while attending Med school, but she’s clever enough to deal with them both. Ashley does like and takes to Sharon very much—probably because she understands what living with those two for years must have been like. I really love how these two actresses play off each other. Sure, Sharon loves hanging out with the guys, but giving her another woman to confide in gives the show a real-world balance that the first season lacked.
Also newly added to the show was Johnny (Nathan Fillion), a romantic partner for Sharon (who falls for the lug immediately). Johnny likes Pete and Berg (not so much Ashley), and now the show has become three guys, two girls, and a pizza place (yet the show re-titled itself to just Two Guys and a Girl by Season 3). Another character, Irene (Jillian Bach), would join the cast as a Pete-obsessed downstairs neighbour. This is the point where Two Guys and a Girl reached the same number of friends as Friends. It’s where the series aired its most Friends-like episode, “Sunday In the Apartment,” where the gang spends the entire episode bickering with each other in the same apartment while preparing to leave for a football game. It bears comparisons to the classic Friends episode “The One Where Nobody’s Ready,” which is considered by fans to be the best Friends episode ever.
Other characters are introduced in Seasons 2 and 3, most notably Irene, a lovable kook to the extreme. She’s Phoebe Buffay on crack: twitchy, a little strange, a lot clingy, and very much lives alone with her dozen cats. The other addition was a slightly younger character named Germ (Giuseppe Andrews), who first works in the pizza place and then somehow starts working at the same hospital as Berg and Ashley.
By now Pete has abandoned architecture and is training to become a firefighter. During training he meets Marti (Tiffani Amber Thiessen) and they don’t get along—especially once she begins to date Berg. This causes a major rift between the two friends with Pete potentially moving out.
The show would go on to do some interesting things throughout its run. There was a dialogue-free episode, a body-swapping episode, an episode narrated in song by The Barenaked Ladies, a Sliver-inspired episode, and the ending to the series’ final episode in 2001 was chosen online by fans. By then, however, the show was positioned in the dreaded time slot of death for network shows—Friday nights—and ratings fell considerably. The series was cancelled in 2001.
Deadpool fans may find it incredulous that Ryan Reynolds first starred in a late ’90s ABC sitcom, but one can see a lot of Berg in Reynolds’s most famous character. When one looks back on that very first episode, the viewer would be hard-pressed to assume that the actor portraying Berg would go on to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood—especially judging from the clunky pilot episode which tried to cram too much story (and unnecessary characters) into 22 minutes. But once the three main actors found their groove, especially by a re-focused Season 2, Two Guys and a Girl became a late ’90s gem that often dared to try new things with the sitcom format, and even though it was about relationships, it never once lost its sense of fun. It’s sad that because of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire audiences lost both Sports Night and this show within the same year. If ABC hadn’t messed up the scheduling, most likely we would have seen a Season 5 where I’m sure they would have had to change their name again—to Two Guys, Two Girls and Two Babies.