Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pilot Review: Imaginary Mary


Imaginary Mary (Tuesdays at 9:30, beginning April 4)

This time next year, Imaginary Mary will be one of those already-forgotten misfires from an otherwise talented cast and creative team. It'll be the kind of show people will see on the IMDB list of an actor and think, "What was that?" And everyone will be better for it.

Things have never looked great when it came to Imaginary Mary, an ill-advised new project from The Goldbergs creator Adam F. Goldberg, Academy Award-winning animator Patrick Osborne, and former Community showrunner David Guarascio. (For starters, why on Earth did it take three people to create a show about a woman's childhood imaginary friend returning to her as an adult?) When the show was originally ordered last May, the pilot's Mary was a puppet which had a very different, much creepier look that lent an oddness and quirkiness to the original trailer. That look as since evolved into an animated character that looks very much like a Pixar character occupying the real world, with the design of Mary sticking out awkwardly whenever she's in a scene, as if blending the character into her surroundings would have been too much work. Then the episode order was reduced from thirteen episodes to nine last September, which is never a good sign for a show, particularly one that hasn't even debuted yet. So it's no wonder that once the finished product has been presented, it's a mess.

Dharma & Greg's Jenna Elfman is Alice, a PR exec with no maternal instinct who meets her dream man in a single father of three (Broad City's Stephen Schneider). Faced with the reality that she could very well become a mother to these children, Alice's childhood imaginary friend (Rachel Dratch), who Alice invented to help deal with the stress and trauma of her parents' divorce, reappears. It's actually kind of interesting to think of doing a sitcom about a woman who reverts to childhood behaviors and patterns when confronted with the prospect of ruining lives the way hers was ruined, but that's not the show Imaginary Mary is. Mary is, instead, a kind of devil-on-the-shoulder for Alice, telling her, literally, to run away rather than meet Ben's kids; to get drunk after a fight; and to break up with her boyfriend to avoid becoming a mom.

The biggest issue with the show is that since only Alice can see Mary, the narrative is completely lopsided. We'll never see Ben or his kids interacting with Mary. We'll never get into their thoughts the same way we will with Alice, since Mary is a representation of them. There are more clever ways this premise could play out; I don't expect the show to, but it could become a kind of commentary on mental illness, or at least trauma and triggering or something similar... but that's not at all what Mary presents in its pilot. No, we're not meant to think when it comes to this show. We're meant to laugh at a weirdly shaped bear thing falling off of bar stools, beds, chairs, and sofas. We're meant to chuckle at an extended "Macarena" joke. Imaginary Mary doesn't have the depth of many other ABC shows, and it doesn't really have the heart, either.

If there were a heart, though, it would be Dratch's voice performance. She's occasionally annoying as Mary (see: that "Macarena" gag), but she's mostly fun and endearing in a very over-the-top way. She has the childish voice to fit an imaginary friend, and she can deliver a zinger with the best of them; now, if only the writers would give her some, that'd be great. Something about Elfman's performance as Alice feels off, which could be attributed to her emoting to nothing and needing to grow into the concept of playing off of a disembodied voice. It would also help if she were given something actually funny to do (and no, spitting a margarita back into a glass and stuffing her face full of tortilla chips do not count).

Going back to what I was saying at the start: Imaginary Mary is the type of show that talented people make and then disown. You likely won't hear Adam F. Goldberg discussing the show with fondness during a career retrospective, for example. People won't start referring to Jenna Elfman as "the lead from Imaginary Mary" rather than as "the lead from Dharma & Greg," despite that show having gone off the air fifteen years ago. There won't be any posts about it on Brilliant But Cancelled. Fans won't attend conventions in Mary cosplay. Imaginary Mary is destined, rather, to be an odd, unfortunate footnote to the careers of otherwise successful actors and creatives.

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