On his new NBC sitcom “The Paul Reiser Show,” which debuts Thursday night at 8:30, Reiser plays a character with whom he has much in common. Both men are named Paul Reiser. Both are rich and famous from starring in “Mad About You.” Both are now past 50, with a wife, two kids and no need to ever work again – and are nevertheless eager to find something to pass the time.
In the case of Paul Reiser, the character, he mostly focuses on being a husband and a dad and hanging out with the fathers of his sons’ classmates. In the case of Paul Reiser, the real person, he’s decided to do his own version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
And it’s not that Reiser in any way tries to hide what it is that he’s doing. “The Paul Reiser Show” is part-scripted, part-improvised. Reiser plays himself, as do other celebrities (Mark Burnett tries to cast him in a game show in the first episode, and Reiser has a beef with Henry Rollins in the second). And Reiser peppers the first episode with references to “Curb,” up to and including a cameo by Larry David himself, who tells the fictional Paul to do what the actual Paul is already doing.
“In life, I’m nice; on TV, I’m mean. You’re the opposite,” David explains. “You should be doing your version of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ because you’re so much worse than I am.”
Unfortunately, David’s “so much worse” line proves to be less about Reiser the character – who’s a bit prickly, but no moreso than Paul Buchman was – than about “The Paul Reiser Show” itself, which has the format of “Curb” but lacks its brilliant, black sense of humor.
At times, it almost plays like a parody of what an NBC version of “Curb” would look like: “Okay, okay, we need a cranky, middle-aged Jewish comedian who used to be part of Must-See TV in the ’90s… But he can’t be too cranky, because we don’t want viewers to hate him… And he’ll have a bunch of friends whom he winds up insulting or hurting without meaning to… But he can never be too rough with them, because we don’t want viewers to hate him… No profanity, obviously, but maybe if we add a bunch of slapstick, nobody will notice!”
Everything about it is half-hearted. Though the show is, like NBC’s other comedies, laughtrack-less, its visual template is so bright, and the banter between Paul and wife Claire (Amy Landecker, given nothing to do to differentiate herself from Cheryl Hines) so familiar in its rhythms, that we might as well be watching a traditional sitcom shot on a stage in front of a live audience. Reiser has so much experience doing it the old-fashioned way (between “Mad About You” and “My Two Dads,” he spent 10 seasons working on shows like that) that it’s easy to understand the stylistic backsliding, but it becomes distracting. If Reiser wanted to do a traditional sitcom, he should have just done one all the way.
It doesn’t help that the four actors playing his friends appear to have been given conflicting directions about what kind of show this is. Duane Martin (“All of Us”) is relatively down-to-earth (if not completely uninterested), while Andrew Daly (“Eastbound and Down”) and Ben Shenkman (“Damages”) both seem to be auditioning for the same vaudeville comedy duo (Shenkman as the straight man, Daly as the clown), and Omid Djalili hams it up as the gang’s Iranian immigrant scrounger, who runs a warehouse full of slightly damaged merchandise that seems to drive every other storyline.
It’s all incredibly broad, and lacking in any real point of view. Again, despite the early references to Paul being a huge crank, he mainly seems befuddled by the world around him, and fairly guarded about what he’s about. With the “Curb” version of Larry David, you always understand why he does the things he does; with this fictional Paul Reiser, the only motivation behind anything seems to be because someone in the writers room thought it would be funny – which, unfortunately, very little of it is. (Though I’ll admit to chuckling on occasion at some of the things Djalili does and says; if you’re gonna go that broad, you better go all the way, and he commits to the caricature.)
I like Reiser. I always appreciated when he turned up in a supporting role in movies in the ’80s, liked the early seasons of “Mad About You” – and my issues with the later seasons were more about Helen Hunt’s character than his – and probably still have my well-worn VHS copy of his HBO special “Out on a Whim” somewhere in my attic. If he wants to come out of semi-retirement (he last acted in 2005’s “The Thing About My Folks”) and try another sitcom, more power to him. I just wish that the new show had a governing impulse behind it beyond “Paul is bored and needs something to do.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org