“Mr. Sunshine” is Matthew Perry’s return to a regular series after the unfortunate “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” misstep (a show which did not live up to the high expectations but which was not nearly as bad a show as many viewed it at the time; it was just a misfire). Perry plays Ben Donovan, the manager of operations for the Sunshine Center, a San Diego stadium that plays host to the local ice hockey team and, in the premiere, a circus. Presumably, the stadium also hosts concerts and rallies and the like. Donovan is tasked with running the joint and making sure everyone has a good time, and there’s no question that the show is envisioned to be Perry’s vehicle — he is, of course, “Mr. Sunshine” (because of his job and “ironically” because of his less-than-sunny disposition).
And Perry is pretty good in the role, which is unsurprising given the fact that Ben Donovan doesn’t seem too far removed from the character that has more or less become Perry’s staple — he’s smart and snarky, carefree in a way that borders on “grow up dude, you’re 40-something,” good at what he does but a bit too self-centered for his own good (“no one is the answer for you because you only think of yourself”). But given the fact that the role is so apparently in his wheelhouse, there was something disappointingly lacking in the character, which is emblematic of the premiere episode itself.
Early on we’re introduced to the stadium’s marketing director, played by Andrea Anders (“Better Off Ted,” RIP). Anders showed some great comedic chops on “Ted” but isn’t given a whole lot of opportunity in the premiere to let those chops fly, nor do we really get to learn much about her character (with a gun to my head I could not, for the life of me, tell you her name). Nor do we get to learn much about Ben’s best friend and Anders’ character’s boyfriend, Alonzo (James Lesure, also a “Studio 60” alum), besides the fact that he’s a former local basketball player and the workplace lackey of the owner of the Sunshine Center.
Presumably, these two characters are so underdeveloped because so much of the half-hour has to develop Perry’s character and Crystal, the aforementioned owner, who’s played by the always wonderful Allison Janney. Here, Janney gets to be a bit more loose and kinetic than we customarily see her, and while her character displays some frustratingly stereotypical sitcomyness (she’s a bit too much of the typical, self-centered, oblivious richy-rich type), Janney is clearly having fun with the role. Nate Torrance (also a “Studio 60” alum) is also clearly having fun with his role as the final main character, Crystal’s son Roman and a new employee at the stadium. The only trouble here is that he’s not quite as much fun to watch, because Roman is the stereotypical “lovable idiot,” and his idiocy is painted far too broadly.
All told the premiere (which was directed by another “Studio 60” alum, Thomas Schlamme) does a decent job of introducing the show, but it doesn’t leave us with a solid impression of whether this is a show we have to come back to. There were a few cute bits, one or two little laughs, and one solid laugh (a perfectly delivered Perry line that instantly makes you remember why you love him). But the broad approach taken to some of the more developed characters makes you worry about what will happen when those other underdeveloped characters do get more depth. That said, there’s no question that the show has a heap of talent and a decent enough premise (though there, too, it feels a little too “sitcomy”).
It actually reminds me quite a bit of the show it replaced on the schedule, “Cougar Town” (which is only on hiatus and will return), except that “Cougar Town” premiered with an absolutely awful premise and appeared to be the quintessential piece of shit new show that would suffer a quick death. Courtney Cox, who burned off much of whatever “Friends” goodwill she had with FX’s miserable “Dirt,” played a 40-something divorcée on the prowl for men. But the premiere had some potential. After some odd weeks, “Cougar Town” started to find itself. It toned back the broad characters, while also figuring out how to make them even more exaggerated. It found a tone that worked, and became this very comfortable show — there are funnier shows on TV right now, but there are few as enjoyable as “Cougar Town.” And while it’s a very different show, “Mr. Sunshine” feels like it could get to a similar spot. There’s a good bit of talent here and flashes of potential. If it can find itself, it may turn into a lovely little show, and I’m willing to invest a bit of time into it to see if it gets there.
If nothing else, here’s hoping we’ll get a scene between recurring guest star Jorge Garcia and Janney, because it only seems right that Hugo get to meet Jacob’s mother.
“Mr. Sunshine” premieres tonight on ABC at 9:30.
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