Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Pilot Reviews: About a Boy & Growing Up Fisher


About a Boy (Tuesdays at 9:00 on NBC)

There's not really much to say about the latest adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel, which was previously an Oscar-nominated film in 2002 starring Hugh Grant. It's cute and charming and heartwarming, and the pilot is all-around well-done. It's funny (but not gut-busting) and likeable, even if it too often relies on stock types and clashing opposites.

Will (David Walton, who just can't catch a break with a successful series) is a thirtysomething manchild. He once was a popular songwriter, but since his band broke up he's resorted to picking up women in self-help groups by lying about having a dying son. Fiona (Minnie Driver) moves in next door with her eleven year-old boy, Marcus (Benjamin Stockham, 1600 Penn), and she's a bit too tightly wound for Will's free-living ways. She chastises him for grilling meat when the wind blows toward her house (she and her son are vegans, though not by choice for the latter) and asks him to turn down his music during her meditation periods. But Will develops a soft spot for Marcus when he saves him from a group of bullies, realizing that there's more to the awkward new neighbors.

The relationship between Will and Marcus is terribly precious. It's all a little sudden; Will seems to go from making fun of Marcus's sweater in one scene to welcoming him with open arms in the next, but it's forgivable considering the chemistry between Walton and Stockham. Walton is really such a talented comedic actor, perfect for the womanizing man-boy he seems to always play in short-lived NBC shows (Perfect Couples, Bent), and he has a great repartee with his weird-but-in-a-cute-way, younger screen partner. The only one lost a bit is Driver (in her first comedic role on television since Will & Grace ten years ago), whose Fiona is mostly just a mix of uptight lifestyle stereotypes: a guitar-toting vegan who meditates all the time and is her son's best friend. Still, she's quirky and sympathetic in her few scenes, and the show thankfully doesn't come to a grinding halt when it meanders away from the Will-Marcus scenes. Those are definitely the show's strongest aspect, but the rest of it is pretty solid as well.

The script by Jason Katims (Emmy winner for Friday Night Lights) is light and cute, with more in common with romantic comedy films than with sitcoms (much like how his other NBC series started out, Parenthood). Combined with Jon Favreau's easy direction of the pilot, About a Boy has a gentle breeziness about it, a feeling of familiarity and comfort. It's an easy show to watch and an easy show to like.

Growing Up Fisher (Tuesdays at 9:30 on NBC)

Less successful and enjoyable is Growing Up Fisher, yet another "modern family" comedy without much setting it apart. Mel (the always likeable J.K. Simmons) is blind, a fact that he is just now admitting to people outside his immediate family. He's never let his affliction get in the way of doing what he wants, and this does not go unnoticed by son Henry (Eli Baker), who takes it upon himself to be his dad's new right-hand man. Mel's ex-wife Joyce (Jenna Elfman) can't deal with how much things change, so to cope she continually tries to bond with teen daughter Katie (Ava Deluca-Verley). Nothing about the story sets the world on fire, but that doesn't always mean anything. Flat concepts can be saved by stellar writing, direction, performances, and humor.

Unfortunately, Growing Up Fisher fails on most of these levels as well.

It's anachronistic. I know that it takes place in the present because of things like electronic cigarettes and Instagram, but everything feels so dated, like Growing Up Fisher is actually a failed 1970s or 1980s sitcom that NBC has pulled from the graveyard and thrown up on screen almost unedited and un-updated. There's the cheesy narration from adult Henry (provided by Jason Bateman, who also produces), a scene where Mel teaches his daughter how to parallel park a huge Buick, the use of "Under Pressure" over the the final scene and credits, and the central conceit of an aging mother trying to be like her teenage daughter. Actually, all of this makes this show sound a lot like ABC's The Goldbergs. But at least that show uses these situations for comedic effect, pointing out just how dated such plot points and narrative techniques are. Growing Up Fisher subscribes to them rather than mocks them.

The humor is also particularly awkward. Everything is based on the premise of finding blind jokes funny (and they're not, really) or the physical comedy of a blind man doing something you wouldn't expect him to: parallel parking a car, wielding a chainsaw, riding a bike as a truck barrels toward him, etc. And these scenes are juxtaposed with scenes of Mel giving sage life advice to his kids or fighting for his right to have his guide dog (not "seeing-eye dog," as the pilot makes abundantly clear throughout) stay in a hotel where pets are restricted. So what is this? Is it a black comedy? A family dramedy? Is it about a slightly off-kilter family, or is it about a boy's gradual appreciation for his father's strength? If the creators don't know, how should I? The tone shifts constantly and never defines itself clearly, making the already-muddled plot even more bland and uninteresting. Creator DJ Nash's script, based on his own childhood, is full of contradictions and unevenness, all of which are heightened by the Leave It To Beaver look of the show (Friends alum David Schwimmer's direction is really subpar) and the caricature-like performances from everyone in the family. And it's a shame, because a show like this could have been a lot better if it were just darker and quirkier. But Growing Up Fisher is a laughless stinker instead.

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