Most sitcoms are populated either by characters you’d meet in life or characters that only exist on sitcoms. Two new NBC sitcoms, Growing Up Fisher and About a Boy, fall into the second category. That’s not to say they’re incompetent or otherwise unwatchable; they’re professional bits of work, acted and written and directed with energy. They might catch on with audiences or they might not, and they might improve drastically or they might not. Whatever happens, I’m in no rush to watch either show again, because I’m tired of sitcoms in which everybody acts and sounds like a network sitcom character, talking very quickly and in a peppy and “bright” tone to make you think they aren’t irritating, even outright horrible people.
About a Boy — based loosely on Nick Hornby’s novel and the same-named Hugh Grant film adaptation — is about one such horrible person, a smarmy compulsive womanizer named Will Freeman (David Walton, star of many sitcoms that for whatever reason didn’t last long) who moves in next door to a single mom named Fiona Brewer (Minnie Driver) and her cute son Marcus (Benjamin Stockham). By cute I mean “cute,” and by “cute” I mean “TV cute,” which translates as, “is theoretically a sweet elementary schooler, but talks like an emotionally arrested adult man who’s taking an improv class in L.A.” The first three episodes are all variations on the same formula: Selfish bastard Will somehow ends up squiring the kid around in “adult” circumstances (such as a flashy record industry pool party thronged by gyrating babes) and getting him into deeply mortifying trouble and then apologizing to the kid/his mother/tacitly to the viewer, but being let off the hook, sort of, because he’s helping loosen up the kid, whose mother is raising him as a gluten-free, lactose-intolerant vegetarian and otherwise refusing to let him have any fun, man, and dear God, no, just no.
I seem to recall that this same character was more tolerable in the Hugh Grant film version, probably because he was played by Hugh Grant; at least he didn’t act like a manipulative drug addict who keeps getting his friends into terribly compromised positions and then skates away from real consequences by being off-the-cuff funny and bagging hot babes. To be clear, the problem isn’t that Will is in some general sense unlikable, it’s that About a Boy rigs the show so that you have no choice but to think of him as a liberating life force who’s adorable and ultimately admirable. Don Draper, Will ain’t. However well-executed, shows like this one and Fox’s Rake are propaganda on behalf of douchebags.
Growing Up Fisher, about a blind lawyer is much better, in the sense that it does not make you want to pull your own eyeballs out in protest. But there’s something fundamentally false about it as well. J.K. Simmons plays Mel, a blind lawyer who has successfully hidden his blindness from most of his clients with help from friends and family, including his son Henry (Eli Baker), whom he uses as, essentially, a sight beard. There’s much in the series that’s simply puzzling — or maybe evidence that the creators succumbed to network notes demanding that every character be more “likable” — such as the fact that Mel and his wife Joyce (Jenna Elfman) just got divorced even though there’s no apparent reason why they’d even dislike each other.
The series is drawn from the life of creator D.J. Nash, and narrated in past tense by Jason Bateman (even though it’s set in the present), so I’m reluctant to call anything out as purely unbelievable, because the reply might be “but it actually happened!” Suffice to say there’s not enough explanation for such details as the husband being forbidden to bring a seeing-eye dog into the house because of his wife’s dog allergy (would this issue not have been addressed in their early courtship — and if it was, why wasn’t it resolved by their resolving to date other people?). And some other details are handled so awkwardly that they feel like attempts to explain away production or casting issues; the worst of these is Joyce’s story about meeting her pushing-retirement-age husband and having her first child (teenage daughter Ava Deluca-Verley) when she was barely out of high school, which adds a bit of unexplained cradle-robbing creepiness to what’s otherwise a perfectly affable relationship. The creative failure of Growing Up Fisher is more distressing than the missteps of About a Boy because there would seem to be so much more potential there. These are characters that, in theory, you haven’t seen before, but the show makes them feel too familiar.