David Walton should be a TV star. This is a truth the TV industry has recognized, and, to its credit, it keeps trying to engineer a successful vehicle for him.
Walton specializes in playing raffish, charming dudes whose essential sweetness is laced with the mildest flavoring of douchiness. Even when his characters do questionable things, the guys he plays are so relaxed, at ease and engaging that you're kind of willing to let those mistakes slide, especially since his characters tend to recognize it when they've really screwed up. The writers of "New Girl" and the little-seen "Bent" knew just how to play with Walton's goofy-cool leading-man qualities, and his new NBC comedy, "About a Boy," takes advantage of those qualities too. I remain circumspect about its chances, though, because a lot of other elements of the show are patchy and inconsistent.
The focus of "About a Boy" (which premieres Saturday after the Olympics) is squarely on Walton, which is a bit unfair on Minnie Driver, Walton's co-star. Driver capably plays the mother of the titular boy and she has proven in the past that she has a terrific range, but her character's stuck in narrow range of options -- when she's not complaining or judging, she's often crying. An intelligent, neurotic woman who often gets in her own way isn't necessarily a bad starting point for comedy (it's the premise of everything from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to "Girls"), but in the first three episodes, Driver's character is written too broadly to be very effective.
If you haven't read the Nick Hornby book the show is based on (or seen the 2002 Hugh Grant movie of the same name), Fiona and her son Marcus move in next to Will, Walton's character, a fun-loving bachelor who has money to spare and no major -- or minor -- responsibilities. Will receives an ample income from a novelty song he wrote years ago, and he spends the majority of his time just goofing around.
Part of what made the Hugh Grant "About a Boy" successful was that it was willing to at least peek into the darker areas of the characters minds and hearts. The sitcom wants to make light of almost everything, and that dilutes some of its potential. In addition, some of the dialogue, especially the lines given to Marcus, feels very forced and sitcom-y. Though the first episode of "About a Boy" is fairly charming, the second and third are progressively broader, and the third is especially grating.
Episode three involves a sitcom staple, the single guy's attempt to babysit some rugrats. Will's stint as babysitter to the three squalling kids of his best friend, Andy (Al Madrigal), has a few funny moments, but it's marred by the flat, humorless writing for not just Andy but his wife, who comes off as especially shrill. "Parenthood," the other NBC show created by "About a Boy" executive producer Jason Katims, occasionally goes to some mildly cartoony places, but in the main, it tries to keep its characters grounded in honest emotion and realistic behavior. It's clear that "About a Boy" wants to live in that kind of space but be more comedic, and if it heads in a more nuanced direction, it might just get there.
Speaking of man-boys, there are a lot of them on "Mixology" (9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday, ABC), which employs an elaborate conceit that might have worked if the show wasn't so aggressively unpleasant about gender, dating and mating rituals. The entire first season of "Mixology" -- should we be blessed with one -- will take place in one night at one bar and tell the stories of characters whose paths will continue to cross all evening.
It's not a bad idea for a comedy, but when the comedy is so tin-eared and predictable, who cares? "Mixology" has mined Pickup Artist culture and other dank, sweaty corners of the Internet for much of its "inspiration," if that's what you'd want to call it. ABC is advertising that the show's creators wrote "The Hangover," but imagine that movie with the heart and charm removed, and you're left with these skeevy remains.
In its first few episodes, "Mixology" loudly and repeatedly makes the case that women (who are judged on their adherence to very limited set of rules regarding appearance, dress, behavior, etc.) are objects to be won, that men must employ elaborate stratagems to obtain sex (and only sex) with these female objects, and that even if the facade of "game" drops on occasion, sincerity and kindness are usually things to be mocked.
They canceled "Happy Endings" for this? Yeeesh.
I don't feel bad about avoiding "Mixology" as if it were an STD, though I do feel like a bit of a heel for disliking "Growing Up Fisher," which also premieres Saturday after the Olympics.
Here's another comedy that depicts the wonder years of a pre-teen boy; in this case, 11-year-old Henry Fisher derives a lot of his identity from assisting his father, a blind attorney played by the wonderful J.K. Simmons. The problem is, like "Sean Saves the World" and "The Michael J. Fox Show," this show is formulaic, slightly frantic and relies too much on unearned sentiment. Every line rings false and every character feels contrived (Henry's best friend is a cartoon-y character straight from a grating 1994 sitcom). Jenna Elfman is wasted in an undercooked role as Henry's mom, and this is a weird gripe, but I'm very tired of comedies (like "Fisher" and "Mixology") that are overlit. What, you want us to be able to clearly see that the shows aren't very funny?
"Growing Up Fisher" feels entirely forced, but at least it has earnest aspirations, which is more than I can say for "Mixology." Still, "About a Boy," despite its missteps, is the only one of the three shows with real potential. The cast is very good and if the central relationships are beefed up, it could be a keeper. And if this show doesn't cement Walton's small-screen career (as "Castle" did with the similarly charming Nathan Fillion) -- well, keep on trying, TV.
After their post-Olympics premieres, "About a Boy" will air 9 p.m. EST Tuesdays and "Growing Up Fisher" will air 9:30 p.m. ET Tuesdays on NBC.