The One Where Matthew Perry Makes (Another) Bad Sitcom

CBS's The Odd Couple sees the Friends alumnus still struggling to squeeze himself back into the formulaic sitcom structure. He deserves better.

It's unfortunately obvious why CBS has chosen to revive The Odd Couple for television. In a changing media landscape, the network remains devoted to the traditional laugh-track sitcom, and there's nothing more traditional than Neil Simon's dusty old "neat freak lives with charming slob" comedy. It's been a play (first staged in 1965, with a gender-swapped edition premiering in 1985), a film (in 1968, with a 1998 sequel), a children's cartoon (starring a cat and a dog), and three sitcoms, counting this one (including a 1982 remake starring black actors). The question that’s harder to answer is why exactly Matthew Perry has gotten himself mixed up in this latest mess.

There's nothing really terrible about CBS's 2015 Odd Couple, which pairs Perry as the slovenly Oscar Madison with Thomas Lennon as the persnickety Felix Unger, two divorcees living together in a fabulous Manhattan apartment and bickering over the glaring personality flaws that have left them single in their 40s. No matter what year the setting—or the race, gender, or species of its main characters—The Odd Couple is an easy, rigid formula for laughs. Oscar would rather Felix not clean the things; Felix would rather the things be clean. They have much to learn from each other. Laugh, fight, hug, repeat.

But what is Matthew Perry doing here? This isn't to suggest Perry has some Orson Welles-level talent that should be reserved for the rarest of TV endeavors. But he's been to this rodeo before, a lot. The 2015 Odd Couple pilot was co-written by Perry (along with sitcom vets Joe Keenan and Danny Jacobson), but if he applied a personal touch, it's hard to notice. It has none of the verve and energy of a certain other sitcom Perry made his name in 21 years ago, but forgetting that, it even lacks the hints of originality of his failed follow-up projects (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Mr. Sunshine, Go On). None of those shows was very good, but you could at least see what had drawn Perry to them, considering that the fortune he made making Friends grants him the privilege to be picky about his projects. The Odd Couple is the opposite—a terminally functional work, brushed of any idiosyncrasy, about as close as CBS can come to guaranteeing itself an out-of-the-box hit.

It certifies Perry as the workaholic of the Friends ensemble, which is worth taking stock of given that the show that made them famous was just introduced to a brand new generation (via its ballyhooed Netflix debut). Only Jennifer Aniston vaulted to movie-star status after the show concluded its 10-season run in 2004, and only David Schwimmer really changed careers, having mostly worked as a director and stage actor since. Matt LeBlanc went from a failed spinoff (Joey) to an underseen Showtime comedy where he plays himself (Episodes), a testament to his skill within a limited range (he's collected three Emmy nominations for it). Courteney Cox has plugged away for the last six years on the charming but poorly named Cougar Town, which never quite graduated from "cult favorite" to "hit." Lisa Kudrow, perhaps the most talented actress of the bunch, picks and chooses her projects more carefully, but has done heralded work on the premium-cable comedies The Comeback (on HBO) and Web Therapy (on Showtime).

Perry first landed a golden-ticket project—Aaron Sorkin's TV follow-up to The West Wing—that any actor would leap at, and it's hardly his fault Studio 60 turned out to be such a fiasco (his performance on the show was one of its few consistent highlights). He then co-created the winsome sad-sack comedy Mr. Sunshine for ABC, which never quite found a rhythm but didn't deserve its (quickly canceled) fate. NBC's Go On had a biting premise but too soft a delivery, and its thematic similarity to the far-superior Community served to underline that there were plenty of worthy successors, like that show's Joel McHale, to the "sarcastic charm" throne Perry once occupied as Chandler Bing.

In The Odd Couple, Perry even seems to have lost that deft touch. He delivers all his lines, even basic exposition, as an angry rant, the kind Chandler would often use to great effect for his punchlines. Here, it feels beyond forced, and Perry (who hasn't starred in a multi-camera sitcom since Friends went off the air) comes across like he's trying too hard. Lennon's fussy Felix, who strikes obnoxious yoga poses in Lycra shorts and loudly announces dinner courses as he wheels food into the room, comes across as less mannered. Absolutely no effort is made to justify the absurd notion that these two would ever be friends, let alone agree to live together (they both seem perfectly well-off, with Felix's ongoing divorce cited as the only reason he needs to stay somewhere). They're an odd couple because they're The Odd Couple.

The rest of the ensemble is a murderer's row of actors who are given absolutely nothing to do. Wendell Pierce (The Wire) drops by to light a cigar and raise a suspicious eyebrow at Felix. Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall, Newsradio) is another mournful-faced friend (both complain about the demands of their unseen ball-and-chain wives, as if this were still 1965). Yvette Nicole Brown, who did memorable, three-dimensional work for five years on Community, gets one sad scene as Oscar's put-upon assistant, rolling her eyes at the sight of him in boxers. There's so much time given over to exposition that one imagines the supporting players will have more to do in the future; still, any of them would be worthy of their own show rather than the five minutes a week they'll be afforded here.

The most galling thing about The Odd Couple is that of all of Perry's follow-ups to Friends, it's the most guaranteed to be a hit. It has the solid-gold lead-in of The Big Bang Theory, still the most popular sitcom on television, and it has the premise and the star power guaranteed to appeal to the broad generational swathe CBS still targets (as other networks zone in on younger demographics). The show could flop out of the gate, but more likely Matthew Perry has finally found the steady sitcom job he's been seeking for the past 11 years. All it took was sacrificing inventiveness and originality in the quest for a familiar TV home.