Second Look: Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place Season 1, Episode 1 – “The Pilot”

Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place The Pilot

Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place Season 1, Episode 1 – “The Pilot”
Written by Rick Wiener, Kenny Schwartz & Danny Jacobson
Directed by James Widdoes
Aired March 11, 1998 on ABC

Though Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place‘s series premiere (which aired 26 years ago this month) is mostly remembered as Ryan Reynolds’s mainstream American debut, its specific place in television history a bit more complex and interesting than one might expect. Co-created by Danny Jacobson and Kenny Schwartz (who’d previously worked together on Mad About You, which Jacobson co-created) alongside Rick Wiener, Two Guys‘s first episode aired as a mid-season replacement for the then-controversial fifth season of Ellen, mere weeks before Ellen Degeneres’ show was unceremoniously canceled (the series finale aired to half the season’s normal audience on July 22, some five months later).

At the time, the post-Dharma & Greg and The Drew Carey Show 9:30pm slot was an important one; Wednesday was ABC’s strongest night of the week, though its two top-25 sitcom lead-in hadn’t led to success for shows like Buddies, The Faculty, and the short-lived Arsenio sitcom in the seasons before. So a new, Gen X-focused sitcom featuring a bunch of unknown actors was certainly not a sure thing for ABC; but as “The Pilot” makes clear pretty early on, there was a good reason the network felt comfortable with its new, Boston-set sitcom finally taking hold of the role (at least, for a little while… but I digress).

Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place The Pilot

What I like about “The Pilot” is how lived-in it feels from the first scene, where we are introduced to Tufts graduates students Michael “Berg” Bergen (Ryan Reynolds) and Pete Dunville (Richard Ruccolo), and their best friend and neighbor Sharon Carter (Monk‘s Traylor Howard, in what I’d argue is her finest role), who forewent grad school for a luxurious career selling world-killing chemicals (but she gets to drive a BMW!).

As Pete opines on his existential, educational, and romantic struggles, Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place paints a clear picture of its two male protagonists; especially Berg, whom “The Pilot” goes to great lengths to portray as incredibly intelligent and mildly insufferable – which, as you might imagine, is the perfect role for the still-babyfaced Reynolds (one can see the seeds of his iconic Deadpool performance in this very episode, from his physical delivery to his exaggerated intonations).

The two are a classic juxtaposition of Gen X archetypes; Pete, the Type A neurotic who corrupts his own chances at happiness, Berg the charismatic child prodigy who was never told no, and Sharon, the classic corporate sellout who opines her life choices while she enjoys her capitalistic fruits. “The Pilot” keeps their characters from feeling like complete stereotypes through two main functions; the wonderfully unique performances from each lead character (which makes for like a platonic three-way Odd Couple), and the incredibly busy script, which is not content to just embody the tenants of a typical era-specific “twenty somethings hanging out” sitcom in the vein of Friends.

As “The Pilot” shifts from Pete and Berg’s apartment to the titular pizza place they work, the world suddenly expands, in a way that leaves its middle act feeling incredibly overstuffed. There are odd recurring characters (like Mr. Bauer, whose whole bit is “senile dude who rambles iconic movie plots as his own experiences”), and a pair of miscalibrated secondary stories competing for space. “The Pilot” tries to pair Berg breaking up with his long-term girlfriend during a manufactured life crisis with Berg doing medical experiments to make money, which disrupt the episode’s rhythm every time it tries to shift gears for each separate plot thread.

Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place The Pilot

There’s even the owner of the pizza place, Bill (the dearly departed Julius Carry) dropping exposition about the family lineage of Beacon Street Pizza, where Pete and Berg work; until the episode funnels itself to focus on Melissa (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Pete’s imploding relationship (catalyzed by Berg accidentally revealing Pete’s plan to break up with her), it feels like an assemblage of interesting, but competing, parts. “The Pilot” to its credit, does understand its real foundation is with the Berg/Pete/Sharon dynamic, which is impressive for a sitcom’s first offering (which drew nearly 18 million viewers, an impressive amount, even in 1998), even for one you can feel still trying to figure itself out on the fringes (like its resolution, which comes about because of a plot contrivance where Berg is full of truth serum, a particularly clumsy decision).

In the moments where everything does align, particularly in the third act, it’s easily to see the faith ABC had in this strange, slightly off-kilter sitcom; my favorite moment, which puts the show’s real potential on full display, is when Pete and Berg are outside the coffee shop, talking about being in their mid-twenties – that age when you know life and adulthood are right around the corner, but as Berg describes, you’re just not able to see it yet. Pete wants to plan for that moment, to judge everything by the metric of whether it’s what he wants forever (also on the return of Hong Kong to China, though he’s a bit confused on the details) – Berg, on the other hand, notes that life is mostly random, with a brief monologue I’ve always found resonance in;

“There’s no blueprint to life. First, it’s myosis – out of the womb, snip. Then you get a big ol’ aneurysm, and you slump over your desk. Everything in between just happens, Pete; enjoy it.”

Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place The Pilot

Deeply cynical, incredibly grounded, and delivered with the goofy intonations Reynolds has made a career from; though a fleeting moment, it’s the scene that really establishes “The Pilot” as a series willing to embrace the life of its characters, and find its personality by leaning into the strengths of its performers as it constantly tried on new identities and stories.

Over its four seasons, Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place would go through incredible changes; characters changing careers and relationships, major new members joining the cast (including Nathan Fillion in season two, in his first post-Days of our Lives role), title changes – and even network schedule changes, which would affect its ratings until its cancellation after the season four finale in 2001. Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place is a series that’s never content with where it is (and maybe never was allowed to be); and even though Berg’s journey would often be one driving the series, it makes sense, in this context, that Pete’s is foregrounded first, a more traditional structure it would lean further and further away from with each season.

It’s that reason Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place is one of my favorite shows of its era, and one I contend remains one of the most criminally underrated sitcoms of its time; the fact this series only had a short-lived syndication run on WeTV, and an incredibly lame Shout! Factory DVD series set (I would kill someone for an upscaled Blu-Ray version, if anyone is listening) as its legacy is criminal. And though “The Pilot” is not perfect – or at times, even representative of what the series would become – it is memorable in its almost effortless confidence, a series premiere whose only real fault is having too much going on, to the point it occasionally overshadows the clear alchemy of cast chemistry and writing on display in its most enjoyable moments.

Grade: B

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Welcome to the Second Look at Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place‘s 13-episode first season!
  • This series is partly a campaign for someone to bring Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place to a streaming service somewhere. I’M LOOKING AT YOU, HULU. (thankfully, the series DVD set is still in print, and cheap).
  • There’s a running joke about everyone finding out the weird sounds they’ve been hearing is Melissa’s maniacal sex laugh; the episode never really sells the moment with the character, but Berg and Sharon’s horrified reactions are more than worth the effort put into it.
  • As noted, there is a runner about Berg subjecting himself to medical experiments for money; thankfully, the show would stop integrating this into the climactic moments of episodes (as it does here, revealing he’s been taking truth serum the whole time) and use it as the basis for Berg’s character-defining career choice in later episodes.
  • Gotta love a classic 90’s tell-off moment, which Melissa gets to a chorus of cheering softball players; “Ten years from now, when you’re fat, and alone, and you have to wear a baseball cap at Club Med to cover up your hair transplants, remember – you had a good thing here and you blew it.”
  • Sharon laments her own success; “One more client for me, one less species of bird.”
  • There’s a note about Berg triple-majoring in college, which… just seems insane.
  • Berg, defending his philosophy major: “I’m sorry guys in sandals did my homework four thousand years ago.”
  • What does Berg think will happen to Sharon? “Settle down, have kids… take over Cuba.”
  • Considering Reynolds and Ruccolo only met three months before filming the pilot, their chemistry together is remarkable. Same with Howard; their roles and relationship feel so lived in, it’s easy for the show to just run with in these early episodes, instead of having to constantly establish and re-establish their dynamics.
  • Mr. Bauer recounts moments from Jaws and Casablanca, and exits the episode dressed like Indiana Jones. Are you surprised his character disappears after the first season?
  • Sharon’s a people person – you know, like the Unabomber!
  • Up next: Pete’s irritation with Berg has drastic professional implications in “Two Guys, a Girl and a Presentation”.

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