Matthew Perry's ABC sitcom needs a lot of help, but it's not beyond saving
In tough economic times, everyone wants get more out of what they have—whether that means stretching the family food dollar or having an old car fixed instead of buying a new one. The goes for a broken sitcom. Like ABC's Mr. Sunshine, for instance. The comedy, which airs Wednesday nights, might have a few issues. That doesn't mean it's time to trash it. Mr. Sunshine has a good, solid comedy foundation, made from high-quality, all-American parts. (Except for Matthew Perry, who's kind of Canadian.) With a little care and hard work, even a novice do-it-yourselfer can have Mr. Sunshine fixed up in no time. Here's how:
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The main issue with Mr. Sunshine is that it has an insect problem. The show is infested with a very common, extremely noxious pest—one all too familiar to sitcom viewers. Mr. Sunshine has a large infestation of the dreaded Wacky Bug, and a complete fumigation looks like the only way to save it.
On the show, Perry plays Ben Donovan, general manager of the Sunshine Center, a civic arena in San Diego. Witty and handsome but cynical and something of a loner, Ben is 40 as the series opens, and he's reexamined his life and resolved to be a better person. Think of him as Chandler Bing, if Chandler lost his job in the 2008 crash, divorced Monica, left New York for L.A. to live with Joey, and worked for Aaron Sorkin before moving down the coast and getting into arena management.
The usually sublime Allison Janney—so compelling with Perry on The West Wing—plays Ben's over-the-top eccentric boss, Crystal. She's a vain, imperious pill-popper who punches Smurfs and gets plastic surgery performed on her dog. We also have Ben's assistant Heather, played by Portia Doubleday. She has stalker-ish tendencies and a history of pyromania. We have the nameless Mascot Guy, who never removes his furry costume, and Ben's co-worker, Alonzo. Intended as the sweet counterpoint to Ben's sour, Alonzo isn't merely friendly or optimistic. He's saintly, pulling children out of a burning building when he isn't busy recycling or running a clothing drive for the homeless. Collectively, all these larger-than-life characters become a bit much, a tad cartoonish—a well-known symptom of a Wacky Bug infestation.
The bugs have infested Sunshine's plotlines, too. Like in the fourth episode, "Hostile Workplace." The story hinges on the impish antics of Crystal's over-sized naïf son, Roman, played by the show's breakout actor, Nate Torrence. Instead of a plausible plot device, like, say, having Roman accidentally hit "Reply All" and send an embarrassing email to the whole staff, we get him putting an important stack of papers in front of a giant fan—a painfully I Love Lucy-esque sight gag that yet still might have worked had the audience not seen it coming a good 30 seconds in advance.
Or consider "Heather's Crazy Sister." Ben goes on a double date with Roman and the girl he likes, Heather, the stalker-pyromaniac secretary. Their fourth is Heather's sister, Stephanie. She, like some rejected premise for a first-date from an old Seinfeld episode, literally parrots Ben's every word in a misguided attempt to win his favor. The whole thing felt about as likely as a Donald Trump presidency.
But that same episode also offered a flash of why the show is worth fixing. In the middle of his super-kooky double date, Perry stood and delivered the funniest joke Mr. Sunshine has yet produced, a one-liner about "meeting later for a beer at the Regal Beagle"—a spot-on Three's Company allusion that was a delightfully self-deprecating nod to how contrived and artificial the whole situation felt. In this comment, we saw the kind of self-referential mockery of TV conventions that sophisticated viewers have come to expect from a well-made sitcom. We also saw the only reason that Mr. Sunshine exists at all: the sly, warm charisma, the distinctive, brisk delivery, and the absolutely impeccable comic timing of Mr. Matthew Perry, an actor who has been communicating his sincerity and fundamental decency with every raised eyebrow since the first episode of Friends premiered in 1994.
We have seen a few more flashes of Sunshine's potential, too. In last week's episode, "Crystal on Ice," Ben and Crystal had a conversation about her troubled relationship with Roman that was not only well-acted, but subtly written, too. For the first time, we got a glimpse of Crystal as a human being—and got to see a just little of what Janney can do with good material. It felt like Sunshine's creators had suddenly, finally figured out that a script can have all the snappy banter, zingers, and crazy plot twists on earth, but it won't make a bit of difference if the audience doesn't feel connected to the characters. Alas, this revelation didn't last long: the episode chickened out and ended with slapstick—Crystal's aforementioned Smurf assault. Then Mr. Roper almost found out Jack isn't really gay.
The good news is that Mr. Sunshine already has a fine exterminator on hand. Two episodes back, the show brought in Beth McCarthy-Miller. The virtuosic former director of Saturday Night Live is like a Dale Gribble for TV shows. If she can't get rid of the Wacky Bugs, no one can.
After the fumigation, thank goodness, the job gets much easier. There will just be a few small plot holes that need fixing—like why weird Mascot Guy hasn't been escorted off the premises by armed guards, and how come Heather still works at the Sunshine Center when she keeps lighting stuff on fire?
Then, for the finishing touches, scatter a few knickknacks and doodads around the place to give it a more homey, lived-in feel. Mr. Sunshine's sets can look a little too clean and orderly, especially as it airs right after The Middle and Modern Family, whose production values capture the imperfect clutter of American homes as authentically as any sitcom since Malcolm in the Middle.
The same goes for Sunshine's dialogue. Too often, the conversations sound jokey, delivered rather than said, played to a musty, old school, three-camera comedy rhythm of setup-zinger-mug-for-laughs. With two decades of reality TV behind them, audiences have grown comfortable hearing more raw, naturalistic speech coming out of their TVs. The best shows in this, the new Golden Age of Sitcoms— shows like Modern Family and The Middle, along with Community, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock—strive for dialogue that more accurately represents the way people talk in real life.
That's almost all there is to the job. After fumigating, patching the plot holes, and a bit of redecorating, the only thing left to do is to protect the renovated sitcom with a high-gloss sealant—preferably using more guest stars like Nick Jonas. Hate all you want. His stone-cold deadpan performance last month as an egotistical teen pop star was delivered with impressive restraint, and even a touch of pathos, and it was one more good reason why Mr. Sunshine deserves to be saved.
If the show really can't be fixed, though, don't worry too much about Ben. He can always try to patch things up with Monica, even if she does live all the way across the country in Cougar Town.