When ABC announced that Matthew Perry’s new sitcom “Mr. Sunshine” would temporarily replace Courteney Cox’s “Cougar Town” (the new show debuts tomorrow at 9:30 p.m.), the obvious jokes about Chandler’s show bumping Monica’s show were made. But “Mr. Sunshine” has more in common with “Cougar Town” – at least with “Cougar Town” at the same early stage of development – than a pair of “Friends” alums.
Much like “Cougar Town” was back in the fall of ’09, “Mr. Sunshine” is a show with a lot of likable performers, a solid creative pedigree, occasional laughs and a whole lot of room for improvement. “Cougar Town” eventually figured out what kind of show it wanted to be when it grew up, and hopefully “Mr. Sunshine” can do the same.
Perry plays Ben, manager of a San Diego sports arena, who has built a life for himself based on the idea that a man can and should be an island if possible. He barely knows the names of the staff, has a no strings attached relationship with co-worker Alice (Andrea Anders) and is peeved to realize that everyone in the arena knows when his birthday is. The arena’s eccentric, pill-popping owner Crystal (Allison Janney) seems to endorse his lifestyle when she thinks he’s turning 31; when he admits that he’s now 40, she cringes.
Perry co-wrote the pilot with Alex Barnow and Marc Firek, and there’s a sense that Ben is a bit closer to his persona than Chandler Bing was. Both characters are quippy and easily-frazzled, but Chandler was boisterous and eager to please in a way Ben will likely never be; the vanity card for Perry’s production company is a cartoon of a bored Perry going “Eh” on the apex of a roller coaster while all around him are squealing.
Perry can deliver sarcastic rejoinders in his sleep by now, and unsurprisingly the strongest part of the show is in letting Ben react to the latest lunacy of Crystal’s. When she applauds herself for a string of borderline racist PR ideas, he tells her, in that familiar deadpan cadence, “You’re right to clap, because those are very strong ideas.”
Perry also works well with Nate Torrence, who plays Crystal’s dim but enthusiastic son Roman, a giddy manboy without a hint of guile. When Ben tries to have a real conversation with Roman, Roman asks if he knows the song “The Rainbow Connection,” and when Ben asks why, Roman smiles and says, “It’s just a really good song!” Torrence and Perry worked together on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” – in fact, every member of the ensemble other than Anders appeared on that show once, and both series share director Tommy Schlamme – and their comic chemistry is as obvious as the contrast between the two characters’ personalities.
The idea of Perry as a latter-day Bob Newhart – the sane man in an insane world – has promise, but the “Mr. Sunshine” pilot feels like it’s trying too hard to be frantic. With the circus in town, there are clowns lurking in the background of nearly every shot, and a subplot about a runaway elephant, and at one point Janney has a full-fledged meltdown in front of a press photographer. The show’s best moments aren’t the crazy loud ones, but the simpler ones, like Ben struggling to get serene ex-jock Alonzo (James Lesure) to admit a negative emotion about anything.
There are a lot of talented comic actors working on this show (Anders comes off the brilliant-but-canceled ABC corporate satire “Better Off Ted,” and Jorge Garcia from “Lost” has a recurring role as a maintenance man who’s afraid of Ben), but the show is uneven at best in the pilot. The premise of a man who hates people but works within a sea of humanity isn’t as inherently terrible as the initial one for “Cougar Town,” but if this new show doesn’t find itself soon, its creative team may want to borrow a lesson from the one its replacing and just step back and let funny people be funny together, story be darned.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org