When Jason Katims was a struggling playwright in New York, or even in his early days apprenticing under Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz on emotionally precise dramas like “My So-Called Life” and “Relativity,” I doubt he imagined that one day, he would become the TV business’s go-to man for adapting books and movies to television. He developed the WB’s “Roswell,” based on a popular series of YA novels about human/alien romance. Though he didn’t come on board with “Friday Night Lights” until after the pilot was made, he had to maintain the tone of Peter Berg’s adaptation of his own film, which was an adaptation of a book. And when “FNL” ended, Katims transitioned to “Parenthood,” a very loose adaptation of the 1989 Ron Howard movie, which had already been attempted as a TV series (with a young Leonardo DiCaprio) in the early ’90s.
And now he’s the man behind “About a Boy,” a half-hour comedy series based on both the Nick Hornby novel and the 2002 film with Hugh Grant, which will get a sneak preview after NBC’s Olympic coverage on Saturday night at 11 before transitioning into a Tuesday at 9 p.m. timeslot.
Katims gets these adaptation jobs because he’s good at them. He has a knack for knowing which parts of the source material to keep, and which to deviate from, and how to make characters and stories meant for a close-ended narrative work over the years and years required by a successful TV show. On “Parenthood,” for instance, Peter Krause and Lauren Graham are essentially playing the Steve Martin and Dianne Wiest roles from the movie (responsible dad with an atypical son and single mom struggling to connect with her teenage kids, respectively), but they’ve become highly specific characters with only those very broad links to their predecessors.
With “About A Boy,” unfortunately, most of Katims’ adaptation instincts have failed him. It’s not a terrible show, but it’s a fairly literal, toothless translation of the source material that doesn’t give much indication of working as an ongoing series.
Like the book and movie, the show is the story of Will Freeman (David Walton), a walking, bantering Peter Pan complex who lives a carefree lifestyle funded by royalties from a novelty Christmas song, and of Marcus (Benjamin Stockham), the lonely and strange boy who disrupts Will’s life when he and his hippie mother Fiona (Minnie Driver) move into the neighborhood.
There’s some promising raw material here: not just the story Katims is playing with, but the pilot direction from Jon Favreau and the casting. This is Walton’s fifth(*) attempt as an NBC star — his last, the romantic comedy “Bent,” was by far the best, but was killed in its cradle by bad scheduling — and you can understand both why NBC keeps giving him shots and why Katims might have found him right for this part. He has good comic timing and the kind of boyish self-confidence that works time and again playing these sorts of proudly lazy characters. Driver’s not an exact doppelganger of Toni Collette, who played Fiona in the movie, but they’ve played enough similar roles that she seems an easy fit here. Stockham mugs a bit more than you might want from your average kid actor, but he and Walton have solid chemistry. And by setting the series in the same fictional Bay Area of “Parenthood,” Katims is laying the groundwork for the rarity that is the comedy/drama crossover. (Walton has already cameo’ed on “Parenthood” as one of Crosby’s poker buddies, and Dax Shepard will return the favor in an upcoming “About A Boy.”)
(*) Besides “Bent,” there was “Perfect Couples,” “100 Questions” and “Quarterlife,” which technically was a web series that NBC picked up as filler programming during the writers strike, but would have ordered more episodes of had it done even decently.
But the finished product seems the result of one ill-conceived decision after another.
At its core, “About A Boy” is the story of a pathetic and lonely man who has no idea how pathetic and lonely he is because he has lots of money, no responsibility and a gift with the ladies, and who realizes what he actually needs in life through his connection to an equally lonely and pathetic (if much younger) boy. Walton’s roughly the age that Will is in the book, though he comes across as younger, where Grant being a few years older, and looking it, helped underline the sense of melancholy Will was surprised to discover he had. And in previous versions of the story, Will has accomplished absolutely nothing in his life — his father wrote the lucrative Christmas song — where here he’s a former rock musician living off the proceeds of a song he wrote himself. It’s a more likable version of the character, but it defangs him without coming up with an interesting conflict in its place.
Really, the entire pilot is a watered-down version of the plot of the book and movie, compressed into 23 minutes and with all of the darkness removed. And once Will and Marcus have gone through so much in so short a period of time, and he’s broken down Fiona’s defenses enough for her to recognize that he’s a good, and needed, influence on her son, there’s no story left to tell.
NBC sent two additional episodes out for review. One is an almost straight rehash of the conflicts of the pilot (with a Lil Jon cameo that might keep you noticing at first), and the other has Will learning the same basic lesson as the first two, only by hanging around with his buddy Andy (Al Madrigral), happily married with three young kids.
The show also completely neuters Fiona, and her relationship with Will. She’s no longer a suicidally depressed woman who clings so desperately to Marcus that she has no idea what an outcast she’s made him, but a more stereotypical flake who can be pumped for humor about vegan ribs and then ignored when the plot has no room for her. And to go almost instantly from being rightfully suspicious of this thirtysomething man’s friendship with her son to turning him into her default babysitter doesn’t leave much many places to take her in the future.
Again, changes in an adaptation are fine, even huge ones. No one would mistake Kyle Chandler’s coach from the “FNL” TV show for Billy Bob Thornton’s from the movie, even though both were married to Connie Britton, but it didn’t matter because each was written and played with a very clear vision of what was special and compelling about them. “About A Boy” sticks very close to the source material, removing the parts that are messy and sitcom-unfriendly, but without adding anything interesting to replace them. When I watch Graham on “Parenthood,” I’m not thinking about Dianne Wiest; when I watch Driver in this, all I can think about is what a richer version of the character Collette got to play.
Katims dramas also have the capacity to be incredibly funny (think of Coach Taylor hating Saracen’s Members Only jacket, or Adam Braverman talking about taking his wife to Funkytown). But even in a half-hour format that’s supposed to be more overtly comedic, “About A Boy” isn’t really funny. It’s likable at times, cute at others, but that’s as far as it goes.
It’s perhaps less of a sin here than with the other show NBC’s premiering after the Olympics, “Growing Up Fisher,” because that show is very clearly trying to make you laugh early and often without success, where this is not. On the other hand, a joke-light show with a dramedy vibe, but without any real dramatic stakes, winds up being neither fish nor fowl. It’s there because it’s moderately charming, and because it’s been coasting on the public esteem for a past work.
In that way, it’s not unlike Will Freeman himself. And given Katims’ talent — not to mention the way that “Parenthood” has made several notable leaps in quality over its run (even from the first pilot with Maura Tierney to the version with Graham) — maybe it can also have an epiphany about itself and strive to be better. Right now, though, it’s forgettable.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com