TV: Wedding Bell Blues

David E. Kelley’s new hourlong comedy for Fox, “The Wedding Bells,” about three sisters (named, tah-dah, Bell) who run a fancy, full-service wedding parlor, is dreadful in a multitude of ways, but at least it clarified for me how important I’ll be at my own wedding in two months: not at all. So unimportant, in fact, that apparently all I really need to do between now and then is remember to show up. I am a prop with a pulse. It doesn’t matter what I think because that would imply that I exist, which I don’t, until I’m absolutely necessary. During the pilot episode of “The Wedding Bells,” which premiered last night in the sweet spot after “American Idol,” the groom doesn’t utter a single line. Heck, he doesn’t even appear on screen until the show’s closing moments. Throughout the preceding 55 minutes, his fiancée and her mother say and do a number of predictably awful things. The bride picks a fight with the wedding singer and briefly calls off the whole shebang. Her mother bribes the officiant to work in two references to Jesus Christ during a nondenominational ceremony. In the show’s somewhat misogynistic conception, weddings are a zoo with exclusively female predators, and wedding planners are the zookeepers.

And that makes me … what? Leopard food? I’m sensible enough to know that, on my wedding day, all eyes will be on the bride. Mine certainly will be, and that’s exactly how I want it. But I’m not marrying some venomous bridezilla, and she’s not marrying a brain-dead blow-up doll. In our view, we’re in this together. On television, there is no “together.” There’s only the bride. And chances are she’s pissed about something. For a show aiming to cash in on our culture’s obsession with weddings, “The Wedding Bells” has a surprisingly dim view of the ritual. It’s not about love. It’s about commerce. It’s about narcissism. It’s about melodrama. Which explains why the episode ends with the band belting out “I Will Survive.” Romance is dead, apparently, even on the most romantic day of your life.

"The Wedding Bells,” of course, isn’t supposed to represent actual weddings. These are showbiz, made-for-TV nuptials. Weddings seen through blood-coated glasses. But when my fiancée and I sat down to watch the pilot, we were surprised by just how divorced from reality the show is. Our wedding is only a couple months away, so we’re in full-on planning/panic mode. We thought “The Wedding Bells” might be good for a tip or two, at the very least. Given that the show is about a family that organizes posh ceremonies, we were expecting lots of behind-the-scenes action—a wedding procedural, like “CSI,” only with couples instead of corpses. But we didn’t learn a thing. It turns out “The Wedding Bells” is only incidentally about wedding planners. It’s just a backdrop for a garden-variety soap opera, which makes Fox’s whole wedding motif seem even more cynical, as if the mere mention of the word “wedding” acts as a highly addictive, gender-specific narcotic. ABC tried a similar trick this fall with its unsuccessful series “Big Day.” The show, about one wedding unfolding in hourlong installments, was essentially “24” for women—a claim I’d feel bad about making except that ABC made that exact comparison on the show’s official Web site. (“The stakes are just as high,” a breathless synopsis reads, drawing upon the obvious parallels between weddings and nuclear war.)

This money-making tactic would be forgivable if the show was any good, but it ain’t. Each of the three Bell sisters is defined solely by the state of their relationship to the man (or men) in their lives. There’s frigid, fastidious Jane (Teri Polo of “Meet the Parents”), whose marriage is so spark-free that she schedules sex with her husband into her day-planner. There’s smart, sensible Annie (KaDee Strickland), whose relationship to the company’s ace wedding photographer (Michael Landes, a George Clooney clone who comes down on the wrong side of smug) is over even though neither of them wants it to be. And then there’s the flirty, libidinous little sister Sammy (played by the admittedly quite fetching Sarah Jones), who is contractually forbidden from appearing in any scene that doesn’t revolve around sex. Jones gets to deliver lines like, “Don’t go throwing me up against a wall and tearing my clothes off just because I might like it.” It’s a twisty bit of dialogue, but I think it means that she would, in fact, like it. Jones’s character is around for a very important reason: to give all the men forced to watch this show with their wives (or fiancées) a reason not to blow their brains out.

“The Wedding Bells” also trades in some unforgiveable TV cliches—naturally, the mostly white cast features a sassy black woman—and for whatever reason, much of it appears to have been filmed with handheld cameras, giving a jittery, seasick vibe to what should be a gauzy, glamorous program. David E. Kelley, the creator of “L.A. Law,” “Picket Fences,” “Ally McBeal,” “Chicago Hope” and “The Practice,” is a giant in the television world, but this latest effort is a total mess. It couldn’t even hold the interest of a core target-audience member. Forty minutes into the pilot episode, I got the sense that my fiancée was flagging. “That’s it,” she said as she got up from the couch and headed for the bedroom. “I can’t take it anymore.” My real-life bride-to-be bailed before the TV bride even started walking down the aisle. A few minutes later, I joined her. She had a wedding to plan, after all, and so did I.