The latest version of “The Odd Couple” will premiere tonight at 8:30 on CBS, a few weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison's Broadway debut. In the five decades since, Neil Simon's play has proved remarkably flexible, capable of working as a movie and a sitcom, as well as a play, with different actors as compulsive cleaner Felix and unrepentant slob Oscar, even at times change the characters' race or gender.
But the CBS version is the first to suggest the concept has lost its elasticity. It feels like nothing so much as a sock that won't stay up on its own, but which you can't throw out because you've had it around forever.
This time around, Matthew Perry is Oscar and Thomas Lennon is Felix. Producer Bob Daily (“Frasier,” “Desperate Housewives”) has made a few nods to the changing era – Oscar is now a sportstalk radio host(*) instead of a newspaper columnist, while other characters can openly wonder if Felix is gay – but for the most part, these are the same basic characters that we've seen for 50 years. (Even though some of the jokes are specifically paying homage to the '70s sitcom produced by Garry Marshall, who works as a consultant on this one, the credits still refer to it as an adaptation of Simon's play.) And, based on the new show's pilot episode, those characters and their relationship have outlived their usefulness.
(*) This was also Perry's profession on his last sitcom, “Go On.” The show before that, “Mr. Sunshine (Yay),” had him playing manager of a sports arena. There is typecasting, and then there is an actor like Perry who can pick and choose his roles, and who keeps choosing to play the same type, again and again.
When Oscar, for instance, hits on an attractive woman in his building (guest star Leslie Bibb), he invites her into his apartment, and the fact that she's not instantly repulsed by the filthy wreck of his living room suggests she's not a future love interest, but a grifter setting up a long con on this slob. And on the flip side, when Oscar's buddies (played by Wendell Pierce and Dave Foley) bail on poker night because Felix has insisted they wear booties and replaced their usual grub with vegan food, you can't really blame them.
The '70s sitcom versions of these characters were broad archetypes, but played with such verve that you believed them as both people and friends. Tony Randall played Felix with such a force of will that it simply made sense that Oscar and everyone else would ultimately give in to his obsessive compulsive demands; Lennon, a very funny actor who's game for all the ridiculous things the pilot asks of him (including an elaborate yoga routine), doesn't bring as much steel to the role – though in fairness, the pilot takes place right after Felix's wife has kicked him out, and he's largely a wreck – and as a result comes across as someone Oscar would swiftly put in a cab and send to the nearest hotel, rather than inviting him to move in.
While Perry is either coasting or simply having trouble getting back into the rhythms of multi-camera comedy after years of doing single-cam, the other actors (including Yvette Nicole Brown as Oscar's assistant and Lindsay Sloane as a neighbor whose neuroses line up neatly with Felix's) are all doing their best. But the material all feels like Daily simply dusted off some of Marshall's old scrips without thinking about how any of this stuff would play in 2015.
And the thing is, the basic structure of “The Odd Couple” not only can work in the present, but it does, in the show that CBS is using as its lead-in. Who is Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory” if not a more brilliant and eccentric, but equally domineering Felix Unger? And who is Leonard if not a neater, nerdier, but just as exasperated Oscar? But “Big Bang” works in part because it moves well beyond the broadest, most played-out of types, where this “Odd Couple” is just going through the motions.
The talent of this cast and my affection for the source material means I'll give the new “Odd Couple” a few chances past its creaky premise pilot. I assume it won't get appreciably better, but another Felix Unger once taught me this lesson about assumptions:
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org