By Caryn James | James on Screens February 8, 2011 at 3:30AM
Strange as this sounds, Matthew Perry’s horribly-titled new ABC series, Mr. Sunshine, is pretty funny, his thoroughly unsunny character like a comic version of House. I actually laughed out loud twice during the pilot, which is twice more than with most sitcoms.
Everything about the premise sounds dismal, but the show plays much better than it should. Perry is the self-absorbed manager of a sports arena in San Diego, a place just waiting for a parade of cliches to march through – ice shows, music concerts, the first episode has elephants and clowns! On Ben’s 40th birthday, he starts wondering if the whole selfish life-plan is working for him, because Alice (Andrea Anders), his coworker and friend with benefits, has decided to withhold benefits and move in with someone else. What can you say to all that except Ugh?
But the sparkling cast and some unexpected darkness save the show from becoming its worst self. As in his Friends days, Perry is an expert at droll line readings and sardonic reaction shots. (The role seems tailor-made because it was; Perry created the series and co-wrote the pilot.) Allison Janney brings her great comic finesse to Crystal, the arena’s owner, addled from constant pill-popping and even more self-absorbed than Ben. She has a grown son, Roman (Nate Torrence), whom she hardly knows; in the first episode she makes Ben find him a job. And Jorge Garcia (Hurley from Lost) turns up in a few guest spots as head of maintenance.
Most of the apparent cliches take surprise turns. The circus elephant wandering around seems tiresome, but leads to a clever line. When Ben tries to get beyond his self-absorption by asking Roman something about himself, we don’t expect him to get an answer, then say, “See? I don’t care.”
I was never passionate about Friends one way or another, but I’ve come to appreciate many of the actors in their newer, non-Friends roles. Mr. Sunshine is not as smart as Matt LeBlanc’s self-mocking meta-series Episodes, but that’s on Showtime, which allows a sharper edge.
And there we may have a problem. ABC only released the first episode of Mr. Sunshine in advance, and if Ben begins to get soft-hearted, there goes the show. So catch it while it’s still acerbic.
Mr. Sunshine beings tomorrow at 9:30 ET, following Modern Family. That’s an ideal pairing: both are mainstream sitcoms that balance sophistication and silliness.
Here’s a clip of Ben meeting Roman. Don’t miss Perry’s priceless, unkind reaction.