Friday, February 20, 2015

Pilot Review: The Odd Couple

The Odd Couple (Thursdays at 8:30 on CBS)

CBS's remake/update of The Odd Couple is a lot of things: deluded, lazy, crass, offensive. One thing it's not is funny.

Apparently CBS thinks the world has been clamoring for another dose of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, first introduced in Neil Simon's ever-popular play in 1965, which has become a well-worn staple of community, regional, and high school theatres since then. That led to a 1968 film starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and a 1998 sequel; a 1975 cartoon in which the two leads were reimagined as a cat and a dog; two updated versions of Simon's own play, one with Felix and Oscar as females and the other moving Oscar and Felix from 1960s to the new millennium; and, of course, the celebrated 1970s sitcom starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (which was also remade into a 1980s sitcom, in which the leads were black, that lasted one season). It's no wonder, since the basic premise of two opposite personality types co-habitating is rife with comedic material, but it also tends to feel dated. In a modern society where there is no longer really a "normal" way to live, it's not all that ridiculous for two divorced men to share an apartment. What's ridiculous is why anyone would marry either of these guys in the first place.

Matthew Perry is Oscar, the slob, which means, in this 2015 update, that he doesn't shave regularly and doesn't know where his laundry hamper is. Thomas Lennon is Felix, the uptight neat freak, which means now that he cooks vegan food, runs an air purifier (because he has sinus problems, obviously), and makes men question his heterosexuality. Moving these two opposites to modern times kind of takes away from what made them appealing poles in the first place. In 2015, the major differences aren't between the way Felix and Oscar live their lives, but in their physical representations. Oscar is the opposite of Felix because he likes meat in his meatballs! Oscar drinks whiskey, and Felix drinks white wine! Oscar likes to play poker and smoke cigars, while Felix cooks him dinner! Oscar talks about sports for a living, and Felix doesn't even know what a sports ticker is! All of this basically boils down to Perry's and Joe Keenan's script setting up a masculine/feminine divide between the two leads. Perry is macho; he has stubble, drinks hard liquor, craves no-strings-attached sex with any number of his attractive neighbors, and gambles with his friends while they watch his "sports wall" (ten television sets and a ticker with constant sporting news). Felix is fey; he combs his hair, wears flamboyantly colored suits, cooks, cleans, talks about his ex-wife, cries frequently, and does yoga. This is where this new Odd Couple's comedy comes from: laughing at how someone as butch as Oscar could possibly be friends and roommates with someone as fem as Felix.

Of course, even Tony Randall raised questions about Felix's sexuality over 40 years ago. He's always been characterized as "the wife" in the situation. But in 2015, broadcast television doesn't have to beat around the bush. The script can directly address what the audience is wondering. As Oscar's friends Roy (a horrible-looking Dave Foley) and Teddy (Wendell Pierce) say, "He seems kind of gay." Oscar's reply? "No, he seems extremely gay!" Because he's in touch with his emotions, dresses well, and enjoys living in a clean apartment? Yes, according to broad generalization and dated stereotyping, that is what makes someone seem gay. It's reductive and offensive, and it's not even funny. That was where a lot of the humor in the 1970s series came from: viewers wondering whether Felix was gay or just a snob. No such subtlety here.

You know what else isn't subtle? Matthew Perry. He yells his way through Oscar's lines, many of which are obvious punchlines, such as the one where Felix signs notes with his initials "F.U." and Oscar takes offense. He tries to be the lothario, since a 2015 Oscar would no longer just be physically sloppy but sexually and emotionally slovenly too, by putting his mail in attractive women's mailboxes so they have to come up to his apartment. He makes crude, sexist jokes (Felix: "There's a beautiful person inside you." Oscar: "I was about to be inside a beautiful person!") but then has an emotional breakdown over wanting his ex-wife back. This could also be said for Thomas Lennon's portrayal of Felix, but there's nothing beneath the surface for Oscar. Whatever he's feeling is outwardly expressed: anger, annoyance, sexual frustration, sadness, everything. He operates at one level, and it's "loud." Lennon is a little better with putting some variation in his line delivery, though what he's given is even more absurd than what Perry is. When Felix isn't enacting stereotypes of a gay man, he's obnoxiously wheezing or wailing with hysterical sadness over his divorce. The Odd Couple deals in the type of humor that even the blind and deaf can appreciate: broad and hugely exaggerated. It's old-fashioned, which isn't a surprise considering the age of the source material, and all attempts to modernize the show have resulted in simply being rude rather than funny or clever.

Which begs the question: why is The Odd Couple necessary in 2015? There are clearly ways of doing an "opposites living together" show in the 2000s (Will & Grace, Don't Trust the B..., New Girl, etc), so why do a strict adaptation of a dated concept like this one? Was America really clamoring to see Chandler Ross play Oscar Madison? No, of course not. So to answer the previous question, this is just a quick, easy, lazy way to get people to watch a new comedy. In a television landscape where comedies are struggling mightily (as of this moment, NBC doesn't have a single one on its schedule, and comedies were the first shows pulled this year by NBC, ABC, and CBS), putting up a remake of a beloved concept starring a beloved sitcom actor in a cushy timeslot is a guarantee for at least short-term success... until the audience (hopefully) realizes how unnecessary, unintelligent, and unfunny that remake is.

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