tv review

The Kominsky Method Is a Funny But Frustrating Portrait of Aging Masculinity

Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas in Netflix's
Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas in Netflix’s The Kominsky Method. Photo: Mike Yarish/Netflix

Chuck Lorre’s new Netflix series, a half-hour comedy called The Kominsky Method, does not look like a familiar Chuck Lorre joint. Lorre is prolific, and he has familiar style, as seen in shows like The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon, Mom, Dharma & Greg, and Two and a Half Men. The Kominsky Method is not that. It’s a single-camera comedy about two aging men in Los Angeles, and although the humor is sometimes eye-rollingly low, it’s more frequently bleak. There’s no laugh track, no carefully balanced A- and B-plot with a silly C-plot runner, no clockwork episodic rhythm, no unnaturally well-lit ceilingless living room set that becomes the center of everything. It is darker than much of Lorre’s other work, and funnier, and more interesting, and also much more frustrating.

The Kominsky Method advertises its distance from Lorre’s oeuvre early in the first episode. Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas), an actor and acting coach, begs his agent and best friend Norman (Alan Arkin) to get him a job on a sitcom. “Those little pischers on The Big Bang Theory, they’re making a million bucks a week!” he tells Norman. “Sandy, it’s pabulum; it’s crap. You’re a world-famous acting coach. What’s it gonna look like, you doing a network sitcom?” Norman responds. “So I didn’t get the part,” Sandy says. “No,” Norman answers. That’s a funny jab at the three-cam sitcom, one that smartly slices both ways — The Big Bang Theory, by Norman’s account (and the account of many others) is pabulum, but the guys are deeply envious of it, too.

That duality is underneath much of The Kominsky Method: On the one hand, so much of the world now is incomprehensible and dumb, and on the other, wouldn’t it be nice to be more a part of it? Sandy and Norman don’t go full Clint Eastwood, yelling at the kids to get off their lawns, but there is an uneasy, palpable frustration inside many of their complaints. Young people now don’t appreciate the good things (art, culture). They make up words and products (Skype). They have shallow, silly problems (identity politics, alcoholism — more on this in a moment). They need too much praise. They have working prostates. The Kominsky Method’s heroes are two aging men, one a recent widower and one a multi-time divorcé, and although they are superficially pitted against each other, they’re mostly a team. What they’re fighting against isn’t death or even bodily failure, although they face a great deal of both. What they’re mostly railing against is an aggrieved sense that the world is leaving them behind.

For Norman, the world is leaving him behind because his wife of many decades has recently died. He’s not maudlin. He doesn’t appear incapacitated from Sandy’s perspective. But Norman frankly doesn’t quite see the point of being alive anymore, and he’s unsure he belongs in the world. For Sandy, things are murkier. He doesn’t have much of an acting career, and his coaching job seems fulfilling but not in an inspirational, “O Captain! My Captain!” sort of way. He’s sad for Norman and he’s alarmed by death, but Sandy’s mostly just increasingly unsettled by his body and his life. He’s not married. Most of his young students are idiots. And important parts of his body are starting to fail: Many, many minutes of The Kominsky Method are devoted to the humiliating affront of his enlarged prostate. (A truly surprising amount of time is spent on a shot with the camera pointing upward at Michael Douglas’s grimacing face, with the halting, comedically irregular sounds of small spurts of urine hitting ceramic as the primary soundtrack.)

When The Kominsky Method is just Norman and Sandy, riding in a car and talking about whether there’s a purpose to living, I am onboard. Arkin’s and Douglas’s performances are fantastic, and they’re especially fantastic as a pair, all crotchety bluntness and awkward compassion and pointy, self-deprecating jabs. Even when it’s mostly a show about how unfair it is that old age causes penises to fail, I’m here for it — I wish there were many, many more shows about the specific cruelties of the female reproductive system, so who am I to begrudge one that devotes careful, almost loving attention to the horrors of a trip to the urologist?

The problem with The Kominsky Method is the same problem Sandy and Norman have with the world. They’re great, but they are unwilling or incapable (or both!) of seeing themselves clearly relative to anything other than the narrowest slice of human existence, nor do they show much interest in seeing other people as carrying out interesting, worthwhile lives. While Douglas and Arkin are playing messy, intelligent, believably flawed human beings, they live in a world mostly populated by dumb, goofy stereotypes for whom they exhibit either dehumanizing objectivity or outright disdain. All of Sandy’s students are idiots, except for an older woman named Lisa (Nancy Travis), whom he wants to date.

In a particularly low moment for the show, several students in Sandy’s class get into an argument about whether it’s okay for a white male student to do a monologue for a black character from an August Wilson play. A black female student responds by performing a monologue written for a femme-presenting gay male character from The Boys in the Band. Sandy’s response? “None of this matters because inside, we’re all the same. You want to get offended, try cancerous glands in your asshole.” The show is on Sandy’s side here. These students’ hang-ups about race and identity are stupid superficialities, especially in light of Sandy’s recent diagnosis of prostate cancer that’s so slow-moving that he doesn’t need to act on it at all.

But although Sandy and The Kominsky Method may be annoyed by the young acting students, that frustration is nothing compared to the sheer disdain the show holds for Norman’s daughter Phoebe (Lisa Edelstein). She is an adult — Edelstein is 52, for goodness sake — but she comes lurching into The Kominsky Method like a ditzy, disrespectful teen. She arrives late and drunk for her mother’s funeral, leers greedily at her deceased mother’s belongings, swipes her Percocets, shows no grief for her mother or regard for her bereaved father, and generally behaves like someone barely worthy of our contempt. She’s costumed that way, too; while everyone else is in reasonable clothing (and Douglas in particular is given a hilariously cool-kid leather jacket and glasses look), Phoebe walks through her parents’ home in tiny underwear and a ripped, revealing shirt.

The Kominsky Method doesn’t seem to know what to do with Phoebe, or why she’s even there exactly, except that her alcoholism is pitiable and her personality is loathsome. The show’s internal math seems to require that these two aging men, with their downward-tilting dicks and their looming sense of mortality, be perpetually propped up by scapegoats. It’s as if these two old privileged white guys are so threatened by their ever-apparent weaknesses — as if The Kominsky Method is so alarmed that we might watch Michael Douglas exhibit human frailty and find him too disgusting to be heroic — that the show needs to constantly bolster his position by throwing Phoebe at his feet so at least he’s still better than someone.

I’d love to be able to love the show as a whole, and there are glimmers in scenes of Arkin and Douglas together that let you see what it could’ve been. There’s a glorious segment with Elliott Gould that makes me long for that version of this series. But where The Kominsky Method aims to paint a humane portrait of aging and masculinity and companionship, it can’t help but render those qualities as being inherently threatened by the rest of the world. I wanted to enjoy it as a study of these two male characters, but by the end I couldn’t ignore how little either of these two guys seem to care about giving similar consideration to anyone other than themselves.

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The Kominsky Method: An Uneasy Portrait of Aging Masculinity