Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pilot Review: The Crazy Ones

The Crazy Ones (Thursdays at 9:00 on CBS)

It feels kind of strange to review this pilot, because I don't really think it is indicative of what The Crazy Ones will become. The pilot serves mostly as a showcase for Robin Williams, and why wouldn't it be? He's the show's primary selling point. But so much of what made me enjoy the episode is centered around a truly hysterical, scene-stealing guest spot from Kelly Clarkson. What will the show be without her? Having to strike her presence from The Crazy Ones, I'm not sure how much of what's left I actually care to watch again.

Robin Williams returns to TV as a series regular for the first time since Mork & Mindy was canceled over thirty years ago. He plays Simon Roberts, an unorthodox Chicago ad executive who is alternately brilliant and insane. Simon runs his advertising company with his daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who is as straight-laced as they come, probably because she's more of a parent to her father than he is to her. There's also art director Andrew (Hamish Linklater, The New Adventures of Old Christine); new assistant Lauren (Amanda Setton, The Mindy Project); and Simon's protege Zach (James Wolk, Mad Men). Simon and company get the chance to reinvent a classic McDonald's jingle, so they seek out Kelly Clarkson to help make their vision come to life.

Williams is just being Williams for most of the pilot. This is the source of both some great entertainment and some really uncomfortable moments. The landscape of television has changed a lot since the early 1980s, but Williams is still doing that unpredictable improvisation which made him famous: crazy voices, elastic facial expressions, loud noises, etc. There's even a line in the script that directly addresses this: "You can't charm yourself out of this... as charming as you used to be." It's a little too real, because Williams' brand of comedy feels dated in The Crazy Ones. Whenever he seems to be spinning away from creator David E. Kelley's script, the show kind of comes to a halt, and we are keenly aware that we are watching Robin Williams do his schtick. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's tiresome after a while. Luckily for us, the supporting players are there to reel him in. Wolk is most successful at this, and his chemistry with Williams is joyful to watch. He's the real revelation in The Crazy Ones; his scene with Williams improvising a "sexy" version of a McDonald's jingle for Kelly Clarkson is the pilot's high point. Wolk is energetic without being manic (as Williams tends to be), and he's a total charmer. Less successful are the completely unmemorable Hamish Linklater; Setton, who never elevates her given substandard, borderline misogynist jokes; and, saddest of all, Sarah Michelle Gellar, which it pains me to say since I have absolutely adored her (through every terrible career move) since Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on the air over a decade ago. But she's just too serious here, even for the "straight man" she's playing. Perhaps she just looks too subdued next to Williams, or perhaps she just hasn't found the comedy in her character yet (which is entirely possible, given that she's got hardly anything to do in this first episode), but whatever the case, Gellar just isn't up to the standard set by Wolk and Clarkson.

Speaking of which, I just have to comment on Clarkson's role and performance here. For me, she was far and away the strongest part of the pilot. She poked fun of herself and her do-good image without turning the character on the show into a parody. Clarkson is the only actor besides Wolk who elicited any real laughs from me in this pilot. Unfortunately, she's just a guest star. I suppose if the concept of the show heads in the direction of getting high-profile guests for every episode (or at least every new ad campaign), then there's hope. But Clarkson shines brightest in the pilot, so what's left without her to keep me watching every week? Not much. I'm not a fan of the Williams "thing," and there's not much original humor to be mined from Sydney being the parent to her parent. Hamish Linklater is so boring, he's pretty much a non-presence. Wolk and Williams are fun together, but the rest of the cast isn't as good. The writing is a little stale (Men behaving like children?! It's never been done!), and the central message of sticking by your family, while meant to be endearing and heartwarming, comes across as kind of schlocky. I don't know many who were looking for a sitcom take on Mad Men, but that's what we have in The Crazy Ones, an uneven and often uncomfortable exercise in trying to make something that worked many decades ago work again.

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