Sunday, March 15, 2015

TV: Let's Hear It For The Boy

The good news first: Matthew Perry is funny again.

That's not a minor thing.

Nor is his starring (again) in a popular TV series.


Post Friends, the former Chandler Bing has struggled.

Since Friends ended, Jennifer Aniston has become a bonafide movie star, Courtney Cox has starred in the long running sitcom Cougar Town, Lisa Kudrow's found success with Web Therapy and The Comeback, David Schwimmer's directed multiple episode of TV shows and two films, and even Matt LeBlanc bounced back from the disaster that was Joey with Episodes.

But Perry?

He starred in NBC's bomb comedy-drama hybrid Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip which audiences fled with, followed that with the grossly unfunny Mr. Sunshine and, for his third strike, Go On which set new lows for NBC and for Perry when it came to ratings.

So to be starring in an actual hit  is no minor thing.

The hit is CBS' The Odd Couple which has already been a play, a 1968 film and 1998 sequel, an animated Saturday morning offering and two prior TV shows.

All that's come before is felt in the latest incarnation which feels too often like a bald tire.

Why efforts weren't made to update or challenge the formula are obvious questions until one remembers we're talking about CBS.

Matthew Perry plays Oscar Madison -- the slob -- and Thomas Lennon plays Felix -- the priss.

And hilarity ensues -- sometimes.

Often as a result of Yvette Nicole Brown or Leslie Bibb who take the show in a different (and fresh) direction any time they show up (as Dani and Casey, respectively).

The show has a strong cast but you have to wonder what would happen if, for example, Geoff Stults had been cast as Felix instead of Thomas Lennon or if Wendell Pierce had been cast as Felix instead of Lennon.

Or if Lennon's Felix had been written gay.

(The hint's always been there, even before Tony Randall played the part in the first TV version.)

Lennon's the real problem here.

He's not good looking which wasn't a problem in the 70s but, 30 years later, even CBS realized you had to offer good looking leads (yes, they thought Jon Cryer was good looking when they ordered the pilot for Two and A Half Men).

Is Lennon funny enough to overcome his looks?

On Sean Saves The World, he frequently was.

On The Odd Couple?

Not so much.

He's playing the priss.

The problem there is that was Matthew Perry's role on Friends:  Matt LeBlanc was the Oscar to Perry's Felix.  So when Perry's given the opposite role, for the show to work, you either screw with the formula or you cast far enough away from Perry for the two actors to be actual opposites.

Lennon hasn't found his footing yet to portray something diametrically opposed to Perry's Oscar -- an Oscar which is much softer and milder than what Walter Matthau, Jack Klugman and Demond Wilson offered.

Lennon's still struggling characterization would be a problem if this were another lame single-camera whimsical-comedy.

Luckily, it's a sitcom as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez saw sitcoms: recorded before a live audience.

As a result, each episode has seen Lennon's characterization improve as he and the creative team has seen what works and what doesn't.

Were this another lame, single-cam whim-com, he'd be as dull and one-note as Julie Bowman's Claire on Modern Family.

Instead, Lennon has the opportunity to shape a real character.

The studio audience has already helped Matthew Perry immensely.

Did he need drugs to be funny?

That's what some insiders wondered as he went through his post-Friends career giving one tired and listless performance after another.

What was missing from Perry's performance wasn't drugs.

It was an audience to play to.

Perry, who is also producing the show, showed up in the pilot projecting more confidence and humor than anyone could have expected.

As we've long documented, the idiots who think these single-camera whim-coms are 'amazing' are not real fans of comedy.  They're idiots -- artistically ignorant idiots -- who say things like, "I don't like a show that tells me when to laugh."

Of course you don't like laughter from a studio audience.

It reminds you that you just don't laugh.

It underscores how sour you are and how joyless.

These idiots like to claim that sitcoms with studio audiences are unnatural -- as if they've never been to a play before?

Maybe they haven't.

Maybe when you're that stupid, you've never been to a theater to see a play performed?

You have to be pretty stupid to assume the whim-com is something new.

As if substandard comedy hadn't already been done on The Courtship of Eddie's Father, My Three Sons and assorted other mildly amusing shows.

TV's comedy greats have always depended on the spark a studio audience can provide performers with -- I Love Lucy, Roseanne, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Jeffersons, Murphy Brown, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, Good Times, News Radio, The Nanny, Gimmie A Break, Laverne & Shirley, Cheers, Newhart, 227, etc.

Breakout characters -- including Jimmie Walker's JJ, Julia Duffy's Stephanie, George Wendt's Norm and Jackee Harry's Sandra -- were singled out first by studio audiences.

Studio audience reaction acted as a gauge for Megan Mullally's creation of Karen in the first episodes of Will & Grace in the same way that studio audience reaction helped Ted Knight develop his character on the early episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

And Mary Tyler Moore?

One of TV's most gifted comedy actors?

She was lifeless and dull in 1988's single-camera Annie McGuire but in front of a studio audience -- even in a nonsense role like Christine St. George on That '70s Show -- she comes alive.

Sitcoms very roots go to live audience -- in terms of plays and in terms of stand up.

The return of single-camera half-hour shows has really just been notable for the return of empty moralizing.

Ditching the genre has allowed Matthew Perry to exhibit a joy that many had feared he had lost.

So the good news is that Perry's resumed his role as one of TV's most talented comedic actors.  And the better news is that viewers are so thrilled to have Perry back that they're willing to give the show time to find its footing.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }