It’s a harsh world out there these days. What with birds falling dead from the skies and the Black Eyed Peas passing for halftime entertainment, among all the genuinely disturbing political turmoil across the world, it’s a cynic’s anti-paradise everywhere you look.
It’s also a flourishing time for network comedy, with shows like NBC’s Community, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, ABC’s Modern Family and Cougartown, CBS’s How I Met Your Mother and Fox’s Glee and Sunday night animation block (Bob’s Burgers being the surprising new standout) all consistently competing for the funniest half-hour of the week.
It doesn’t take much imagination-stretching to consider how those two points might be related. Perhaps the bright side to all this real-world darkness is that there’s plenty for sitcom writers to poke fun at–and we need those laughs now more than ever.
Unfortunately, ABC’s newest sitcom, Mr. Sunshine, co-written, produced and starring Friends alum Matthew Perry, seems to tread against that silver-lining trend. Despite a talented, charming cast and intriguing premise, the show’s name is sadly incongruous with the pilot episode, which is at turns predictable, sour, dull and–most importantly–not very funny. Or particularly sunny.
It’s clear from Perry’s pre-premiere interviews and even the show’s logo, a cartoon sun with a stick-straight non-smile, that embracing the gloom may be exactly the point of Mr. Sunshine, at least at the onset. Perry stars as Ben Donovan, a San Diego sportsarena manager who’s just turned 40 and is just now realizing that there may be more to life than looking out for number one.
“He’s a solipsistic, self-centered man,” says Perry. “But his eyes get opened a little bit, and he realizes that the ticket to being happy and having some kind of inner peace in his life is to stop thinking about himself all the time, and maybe think about his fellow man.”
The rest of the series, it seems, will be about turning Ben from a callous jerk into a full-fledged feeling human being, with the help of his hapless staff and the revolving cast of crazies who will come in and out of the arena to entertain the masses.
It’s an amusing, open-ended enough roadmap for a sitcom that immediately brings to mind another recently canceled workplace comedy with a similar “any crazy mishap could happen, and will!” tone, Better Off Ted. The locale of the arena will lead to all sorts of circus-like mayhem. (There’s an elephant in the pilot, and in one forthcoming episode, Nick Jonas comes to town!)
The problem (beyond how painfully plain the pilot lays out this map for the show, though you can’t really blame them–that’s what pilots are for) is that I found myself wishing they’d just get Ben’s redemption part, the major part of the pilot and presumably the premise, out of the way. A 40-year-old man-child learning how to love is as cliched a storyline as the character is unpleasant to watch, especially when framed in the extreme, obvious way that Mr. Sunshine does it.
I am admittedly biased against shows whose main characters I find unlikable (hence my longstanding abstinence from anything Carrie Bradshaw-related), but Ben seems cut from sharper, harsher cloth than most unlikable leads, without the obliviousness that makes a character like Michael Scott tolerable. Too often in the pilot, he oversteps selfishness and goes straight into unnecessary cruelty, like when he approaches his maintenance manager of two years (the ever-adorable Jorge Garcia, who ought to be made into a series regular) and unapologetically admits he’s never learned the man’s name. I would certainly be more forgiving of Ben’s flaws if this opening were funnier. I hope, if his mean-spiritedness is to remain such a heavy focus in future episodes, that the writers will find a way to make it so. Pilots are rarely as funny as the series will end up being, but they do have the ability to introduce us to a compelling lead. If he doesn’t make me laugh and I kind of think he’s a dirtbag, why should I care how and when Ben eventually turns into Mr. Sunshine?
One of the problems may be of outside association: Perry, who wrote this show and Ben Donovan for himself, was so memorable and likable as Chandler Bing on Friends. I genuinely want to like him here, but he’s written himself into such a miserable character-corner that I like all his bit players much more. They are, of their own accord, quite likable: Allison Janney is great and fully committed as Ben’s manic, man-loving, pill-popping boss Crystal, and Andrea Anders (another Better Off Ted connection) is both charming and believable as his employee-with-benefits marketing director, Alice.
Crystal’s son, played by Nate Torrence, and Alice’s boyfriend/Ben’s buddy Alonzo (James Lesure) provide two ever-optimistic male foils for snarky Ben, but it’s Crystal and Alice, arguably the two characters who are just as messed up as he is, and more sympathetic, who take turns slowly leading Ben toward redemption, even when they don’t mean to. “You’re an island,” Crystal tells him. At least Ben is tuned-in enough to realize though she means it as a compliment, it’s anything but.
At the end of the pilot, Ben looks poised to go on a hunt for a soul. I hope it happens fast, because until he does, Mr. Sunshine, for all its potential, may never find its own. And there’s just no room for lackluster comedy on TV right now, even from our close Friends.
Mr. Sunshine premieres Wednesday night at 9:30, after Modern Family, on ABC.
(Image courtesy of ABC)