When Cougar Town premiered last season , it featured a horrible premise (Courtney Cox fucks hot young studs) and a stupid name and was just in general terrible. It stayed that way for its first several episodes. And then the writers jettisoned the awful premise and turned Cougar Town into a show about a group of people hanging out. And now it’s one of the most enjoyable sitcoms around, stupid name not withstanding.
There are a couple of lessons to that story. The obvious one is that sitcoms usually need time to grow. Shows like Arrested Development and Modern Family that spring forth fully formed from the TV development womb are rare.* It generally takes some time for the writers to figure out how to write for the characters they’ve created and for the cast to gel.
(*It is true, however, that most shows don’t start off quite as poorly as Cougar Town; one imagines having a talented showrunner like Bill Lawrence probably helped push things in the right direction.)
The second lesson is that high-concept premises aren’t always helpful, at least when it comes to making a good show. They are almost certainly helpful in getting a show on the air, because it’s a lot easier to pitch high-concept than low-concept. But for any sitcom to actually be good, no matter how high-concept the premise, the low-concept stuff has to work. For all the incessant fan chatter about How I Met Your Mother‘s serialized elements,* the show simply wouldn’t be popular if we didn’t want to spend time with th gang at McLaren’s. Sometimes, as with How I Met Your Mother, the high-concept premise can enhance the low-concept stuff. But other times, as with Cougar Town, it just gets in the way.
(*Often overstated serialized elements, I should say. Yes, it does interesting things with structure and continuity. But no, it is not Lost and it does not need an end date.)
So far, Mr. Sunshine has more in common with the latter than the former. Mr. Sunshine is a low-concept show about a group of wacky people that work at an events center, but it desperately wants to be a high-concept show about Matthew Perry’s Ben finding his long-lost soul. As a result, every episode thus far has followed the same basic plot construction: People complain that Ben is a misanthrope. Ben tries to demonstrate that he cares about people. Various hilarious forces get in the way. And then Ben reaffirms that he cares about people, though in a somewhat different way than he intended. The problem with this being the main plot in every episode is that it requires that Ben begin each new episode as the same old misanthrope he always was, last week’s lessons be damned. The result is that Ben gets no actual character development over the course of the series, but only illusory character development over the course of an episode that immediately disappears at the start of the next one. The premise could work, but only if it were deployed more subtly (that is, more like a normal character development thread). Only by making the premise less central to episodic plots can actual character development occur and the premise of the show actually be executed. In other words, by being so heavy-handed with it, the show actually undercuts its own premise.
Given how early it is in its run, this problem could simply be the result of the old “remake your pilot six times” rule, to which a lot of new shows hew. The idea behind that rule is that if you want new viewers to understand what your show is about, the best way to do so is by making it exceedingly clear in every episode. Which is fair enough. But I do sort of doubt people are going to keep watching just because they’re so taken with Matthew Perry’s soul-searching. If they keep watching, it will be for the same reason people keep watching any sitcom: because the characters seem fun to be around and make them laugh. And right now all the heavy-handed soul-searching is getting in the way of that.
“Crystal on Ice” is encouraging then because it’s the first time the show manages to stay out of its own way. Well, mostly. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but for the first two-thirds, the episode works very well. Perry is still clearly the star of the show, but Ben’s problems aren’t the sole focus of the episode. While all of the stories get filtered through Ben by the end (for no really good reason), “Crystal on Ice” does a much better job letting the other characters stand on their own than had previous episodes.
The Alice and Alonzo subplot, for instance, is very funny even though it has only a very tenuous connection to Ben. Alonzo’s tendency to be absurdly perfect at everything (he always gives half a pint more blood than is allowed by law) is endlessly amusing, and the ever versatile Andrea Anders* makes for a game straight woman. While Alonzo was clearly designed as a counterpoint to Ben, “Crystal on Ice” shows that there’s no reason he can’t be funny on his own. Which is a good thing, because characters who merely exist to be a reflection of another character are barely characters at all. Whether Alice will ever be able to move beyond Ben’s True Love remains a question mark, though if she fails to, it won’t be Anders’ fault.
(*Insert paean to the fondly remembered Better Off Ted here.)
Also clearly meant as a reflection of Ben is Crystal, his stereotypical lunatic boss. While her main trait remains doing crazy things like tackling Smurfs and blurting out racially insensitive things to varying comic effect,* the writers have worked hard to give her an emotional core in her strained relationship with her son. Despite the broadness of the character and despite being saddled with a similar storyline, Crystal’s arc has mostly avoided the problems plaguing Ben’s arc. She too tends to get character-based episodic plots that resolve themselves and then reset for the next episode. And just as Ben is trying to learn to love people, Crystal’s trying to learn how to love her son. But the difference is in that “how.” Crystal’s attempts at showing her affection for Roman, despite well-intentioned and even heartfelt, are always so clearly superficial that it’s clear she hasn’t learned anything. This doesn’t make her a terrible person, because she really does love her son. She just doesn’t know how to show it properly. This is in (unintentional on the show’s part, I believe) contrast to Ben, who doesn’t really like people and have trouble showing it, but actually genuinely hates people and is trying to like them. At the end of each episode, Crystal hasn’t really learned anything and that’s OK, because we know her heart’s in the right place. But Ben is supposed to have learned something, because if he hasn’t, then he’s a huge jerk. Potentially even more of a jerk than he was at the beginning of the episode, actually. So resetting Crystal is fine, but resetting Ben really isn’t.
(*For the record, the Smurf tackling is very funny, while the race stuff is meh.)
Roman, meanwhile, has consistently been the funniest part of the show, despite being written inconsistently. The writers have, on more than one occasion, used him as little more than a barely functioning idiot whose stupidity helpfully advances Ben’s plots. This is a waste and never fails to feel like a great character being squandered by poor scripts. Far more interesting than his stupidity is his loneliness and neediness. As played by Nate Torrence, Roman is an almost desperately sad character who covers his pain with a constant smile that often looks more like a wince. Given the right kind of story, Torrence’s performance could devastating. “Crystal on Ice” isn’t quite that story, but it comes closer than any episode before.
In a pretty standard Odd Couple type set-up, the episode sees Roman moving into Ben’s apartment. The middle third of the episode is devoted almost entirely to exploring this situation and it’s the best the show has ever been. Importantly, Roman first displays some actual talent, quickly completing Ben’s financial paperwork so that the two of them can play video games and then Truth or Dare. As they play the latter, Roman confesses that, more than anything, he just wants his mother to like him. It’s a bit too on the nose, but Torrence sells the emotion better than he has any business doing.
This is also the centerpiece of Ben’s plot, and it illustrates how the show’s premise should work. Most effective is Ben’s reaction when they break one of his lamps. He feels like he should be upset, but he isn’t. Because he’s having a good time spending time with another person. But later, when Roman intentionally breaks another lamp, it’s a bridge too far. There’s character growth, but not so much character growth that it feels unrealistic. Ben hasn’t suddenly turned into Roman. He’s still a curmudgeonly guy who just let his hair get messed up for a couple of hours.
After all of this, the final act is letdown, hitting the same old notes all the previous episodes already hit and needlessly cycling all the stories back through Ben. But then, it’s early yet. It took Cougar Town nearly half a season let go of its premise and get good. Maybe Mr. Sunshine needs to take the same kind of baby-steps Ben takes during his game of Truth or Dare.
- I should probably mention that though I wasn’t fond of the last act, the final scene, in which Allison Janney ice skates with a smurf, is pretty great.
- I’m not great at gauging these sorts of things, but I feel like Mr. Sunshine is probably doomed. Which is too bad because I really do think it has potential.
- But it’s mostly too bad because, seriously, Nate Torrence. I’m not sure I’ve adequately explained just how good he is as Roman, but he’s really, really, really good. If the writing were just a little better, it would be a lot clearer just how good he is.
- The only thing better than Torrence is the theme song, which seems to get funnier every time I hear it.