Acting, Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas) tells his students in the second episode of The Kominsky Method, is how we explore what it means to be human. “Experience the feelings that come up, no matter how painful,” he urges them, “because that grief, that unrelenting sorrow—that’s the raw material. That’s the gold an actor mines to create great performances.”
It’s a convincing speech, and it’s completely unheeded by The Kominsky Method itself, in which Douglas ambles through his scenes with the amiable laziness of an aging Labrador. There’s no urgency in his performance, no desire to do anything but please. And it’s not entirely his fault. Chuck Lorre, the sitcom impresario who’s created series both great (Cybill, Mom) and impossibly popular (The Big Bang Theory), has produced something distinctly strange with The Kominsky Method. It’s neither a sitcom nor a sadcom, but it gestures vaguely in the direction of both, treating, say, opioid addiction with the breeziness of a Saturday Night Live skit while finding heartfelt (and seemingly endless) tragedy in the indignities of the aging prostate.
To be fair, this is new territory for Lorre, whose previous Netflix show, the Kathy Bates stoner comedy Disjointed, stayed within the familiar realm of the multi-camera, laugh-track sitcom, albeit with an edgier setup and more adult vocabulary to nod to its streaming-service home. The Kominsky Method, though, feels like more of an attempt to emulate the critically acclaimed comedies of recent years, with their bleaker story lines and profound commentary on the human condition. To whit: It’s about getting old. Or more specifically, getting old as a man, since even the character presented as an age-appropriate love interest for Sandy, Nancy Travis’s Lisa, is played by an actress almost two decades younger than Douglas.
What this means is a series that spends more time in the bathroom with Sandy than it does in the studio, since The Kominsky Method is primarily preoccupied with urination and its impediments. Norman (Alan Arkin), an agent who’s Sandy’s best friend, states early on that he pees “in Morse code, dots and dashes,” which is a theme that continues throughout all eight episodes. Sandy is forced to relieve himself in a bush outside Lisa’s house; Sandy grimly warns a stranger at a urinal to “enjoy it while it lasts”; Sandy visits a urologist, played by Danny DeVito, who checks his prostate in a scene that features disturbingly realistic (and squelchy) sound effects.
It’s not that the pee talk isn’t entertaining, per se. It’s that the series tends to mistake it for the kind of ongoing plotting and narrative fodder that can sustain eight episodes. That it’s called The Kominsky Method seems to imply that the show will find some meaning in Sandy’s twilight years as an acting coach who’s a masterful teacher and a failed performer. But his students exist only as stereotypes for Sandy and Norman to crab about. They’re dopey, they’re improper, they’re way too easily offended. After the actors erupt at one another over issues of cultural appropriation, Sandy rants that none of it matters because they’re all the same inside, and if they really want to be offended, “try cancerous glands in your asshole.”
It’s an outburst that’s more telling than it seems. The Kominsky Method insists that viewers empathize with Sandy and Norman and their various laments (and with Norman, whose wife dies of cancer early in the series, it finds its most powerful and moving scenes). But Lorre doesn’t seem to have empathy to give for anyone else. Not for Sandy’s students, who are glibly written and ditzy at best. Not for Norman’s daughter, Phoebe (Lisa Edelstein), an opioid addict who’s treated as comic relief when she shows up high for her mother’s funeral and dispatched to rehab as an excuse to get Norman and Sandy on a road trip. Not for Mindy (Sarah Baker), Sandy’s daughter, who fills the customary sitcom role of the nagging wife. And not for Lisa, a divorcée whose characterization (despite Travis’s welcome presence and irrepressible charisma) amounts to a failed marriage and a sociopathic son.
In glimpses, The Kominsky Method shows what it could have been, given a more generous spirit and a willingness to dig deeper. Arkin is superb as Norman, a man felled by grief but still possessing an impulse to crack exceedingly maudlin jokes (“You talk to one ghost and suddenly you’re in a Yiddish version of Macbeth”). His chemistry with Douglas is truly endearing, and the setup for the show demands a reckoning of some sort between the successful and surprisingly powerful Norman and the less prosperous Sandy. But Lorre seems stuck in sitcom mode: He’s happiest when the pair are cheerfully expressing their fish-out-of-water befuddlement about chip-and-pin readers and bitcoin and being “trendy” on Twitter.
This isn’t to say the show can’t realize its potential as a modern continuation of Grumpy Old Men (whose director, Donald Petrie, helmed a handful of episodes), relocated to the age-obsessed locale of Los Angeles and given extra potency by the power dynamics of Sandy’s profession. It’s just that as The Kominsky Method functions now, it’s less a layered comedy about the inevitable frailty of the human condition than a one-joke setup: old men shouting not at clouds, but at the pusillanimity of their prostates.