Series Premiere — Mr. Sunshine, “Pilot”

Of all the Friends actors, it always seemed like Matthew Perry would be the one to strike the balance between sheer popularity (like Jennifer Aniston) and just straight-up talent (probably like Lisa Kudrow, though she’s not my kind of taste). Aniston and probably Courtney Cox were always meant to be more famous, but Matthew Perry seemed like a legitimate star throughout Friends and his somewhat successful movie career during the NBC megahit’s run suggests I’m correct. And if it weren’t for some poor choices by Aaron Sorkin and a lack of trust on the part of NBC, Perry might have been dominating our television screens over the past five years with Studio 60 and The Sunset Strip.

In short, a sitcom built around Matthew Perry seems like a pretty damn good idea on ABC’s part, perhaps an even better idea than giving Courtney Cox Cougar Town (this would certainly be true had Cougar Town not also carried Bill Lawrence’s name and pedigree). We’ve, or at least I, have waited a long time for the premiere of Mr. Sunshine and although this certainly isn’t a homerun of a pilot, there’s a good amount of stuff here to really like, most notably Matthew Perry.

I said on Twitter that I’d be sticking around if only for my general love for all things Matthew Perry and that’s completely true. Of course Perry is playing something of an offshoot of Chandler Bing, but at this point, so much of that iconic performance just seems inherently Perry-ian. And considering that Sunshine is co-written and executive produced by Perry and thus presumably based on his own life experiences, that makes a lot of sense. Ben Donovan is an older, more jaded version of Chandler that presumably never found anyone like Monica or never even went to college with Ross or shared an apartment with Joey. It’s nearly impossible to unread Chandler from Perry or Ben,  but I don’t really care because Perry is an enjoyable guy to watch squirm and crack wise — even if the jokes here aren’t particularly witty or strong.

Speaking of that, in the pre-air discussion about the series, I’ve seen Mr. Sunshine compared to Cougar Town for its sense of wacky, slight absurdity — and also its inherent likability but rocky beginning — but I’ve also seen it compared to some of the lighter half-hour “comedies” we see on cable. After watching the pilot episode I think it might fall somewhere in between those two evaluations. I think this episode seems particularly zany because of the clowns and the elephants running around the arena, which is something that could surely continue but might take a while to get used to. However, whereas all the characters on Cougar Town were pretty wacky from the jump, only Allison Janney’s Crystal Cohen character feels specifically absurd, whereas Ben, Andrea Anders’ Alice and James Lesure’s Alonzo seem like pretty normal people. That could obviously continue, but I’m not sure about that tonal comparison at least from what I saw here.

And in terms of the cable comedies, I’m not so sure that really fits either. I think this series presents itself as more interested in “serious” change for its lead character — unlike Cougar Town — but Ben’s mid-life crisis isn’t going to be that heavily handled, nor does it take up so much of this pilot that makes me think it will suddenly become this super-compelling character study. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but I think for now the series is still finding its footing and therefore it’s fairly difficult to say what it reminds me of tonally. I have decided to give any new comedy I watch at least five episodes to prove something to me because I have come to realize that it just takes a while to get revved up and really identify the tone and characterization.

I think Mr. Sunshine in its pilot form is most certainly better than the Cougar Town pilot but I’m not sure it can morph into what Cougar Town has, if only because the cast isn’t as strong and the creative forces behind the scenes are a bit more unknown to me. But in a season of fairly tepid-to-mediocre comedy pilots, only Raising Hope started stronger. I know that’s not a full vote of confidence, but I’m fully okay with this pilot. It’s not wonderful, but it’s far from awful. It establishes the world well enough, throws in a few nice bits and gags and gets out. I’m cool with that.

Other thoughts:

  • Jorge Garcia of Lost fame gets a few nice bits as a terrified maintenance man and I believe he’s going to be popping up periodically. This is awesome. The more Jorge Garcia, the better.
  • Janney is particularly zany in her role as the drugged-up owner of the arena and although she has a few bright moments, she’s most certainly the weakest point of the pilot. With some tuning, her character could be become more interesting and less overt, which would balance things out a bit more. I presume the son character is supposed to bring that to light, but he’s also a bit of a wet blanket here as well.
  • James Lesure is James Lesure. I have no complaints or opinions on this matter.
  • As I pointed out on Twitter, Andrea Anders has now played the primary love interest to two of the three male Friends leads (here and in Joey). Where art thou, David Schwimmer?!
  • With the arena setting, I presume the series could think about bringing in some high-profile guest stars to play themselves or perhaps other representative jabs at other musicians, artists, athletes, etc. That would be kind of interesting, albeit distracting. If the ratings falter, I wouldn’t be surprise to have ABC pull out a guest star or two like that.
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