The people working on NBC’s new sitcom, About A Boy, are all incredibly talented, having worked on some of the best TV shows of the moment—and some of the best shows of all time. There’s evident care taken with turning the About A Boy of Nick Hornby’s novel and Paul and Chris Weitz’s film adaptation into a weekly series. But this version is empty, and constantly feels terrified of establishing dramatic stakes with meaning. It contrives a way to have its protagonist be a ludicrous asshole in every episode, before having him learn a lesson and become a better person in the most cloying fashion possible. Yet he’s right back to being a ludicrous asshole in the very next episode.
The pilot for About A Boy is a condensed version of the story from the novel and film. David Walton, veteran of many one-season single-camera comedies at this point, plays charming cad Will, a man coasting off the money he earned from a one-off Christmas hit years ago. His new next-door neighbors, Fiona (Minnie Driver) and Marcus (Benjamin Stockham)—a single mother in a new city and her son, trying to live up to his mother’s impossible standards—invade his life. Marcus, out of necessity, starts hanging out with Will, and the two become an odd couple. Will talks in the pilot about how all of his friends have gotten married and started having kids, and Al Madrigal, the only other series regular, turns up as married father Andy in every episode. It’s an attempt to constantly remind the viewers of what Will said by having a squalling baby appear every so often.
The problem with About A Boy is that it’s a fairly standard story of personal betterment. In the novel and film, Will doesn’t magically become a wonderful person, but he does take a few steps toward caring about people outside of his own personal bubble. By the end, he appreciates women (they’re something more than people he can have sex with) and children (they’re something other than obstacles to having fun). By turning that narrative into a TV show, the producers have to come up with a solution to a very elemental problem: How do you take a story where the whole point is a character’s evolution and turn it into a story that can be repeated every week? Some shows might have stretched out that evolution over five to seven seasons, but About A Boy is on network television, and networks are leery about such things. Another solution: radically rethink the underpinnings of the story—but About A Boy’s source material is too good to do that. Still another might have been seeing what happens once the characters start hanging out after Will has evolved past his man-child stage.
That About A Boy chooses none of these options is its greatest flaw. What makes this all the more frustrating is that the series hails from Jason Katims, the man who turned both Friday Night Lights and Parenthood into good-to-great TV shows by either radically repurposing what he did need and eschewing what he didn’t (in the case of the former) or mostly tossing out everything but the title (in the case of the latter). Katims could have made a great version of any of the solutions outlined above; instead, he and his writers choose to repeat the pilot over and over, at least in the three episodes screened for critics. Will starts out not wanting Fiona and Marcus to impede his lifestyle; he does something mean to one of them (or to Andy); he realizes what an asshole he’s been. Rinse. Repeat. This means that every episode ends with Will standing on the precipice of becoming a better person, right before everything rewinds itself to where the first episode started. The episodes keep repurposing material from the book and movie, but the terrible things Will does when he’s a jerk in the first act of both don’t make as much sense when viewed through the context of a Will who seemed to evolve largely past them the week before.
All of these problems are compounded by the fact that the show sands off all of the characters’ roughest edges. By casting Walton—who’s 35 but looks at least three years younger—the show takes the most unseemly thing about Will (he’s pushing 40) and tones it down. The same goes for Fiona, who’s borderline suicidal in the book and film and here just gets a little sad sometimes. The series similarly wants viewers to see Will’s moments of being a complete dick as at least somewhat charming. The effortlessly endearing Walton helps with that, but it undercuts the show as a whole. It also makes him seem completely idiotic when he can’t grasp why his onetime best friend may not be as in to hanging out with him all of the time now that he has kids. The show has badly calibrated too many of the characters.
About A Boy isn’t all that funny, but it’s not trying to be. The tone it’s aiming for is something closer to “winning,” like the goofier subplots on Parenthood or the more hopeful moments of Friday Night Lights. And it’s pretty good at that in places. There are a handful of lines in every episode that are worth a smile or two (as well as a celebrity cameo in episode two that works surprisingly well in this regard), and the acting is largely solid (though everyone seems to be in different shows). But there’s a serious lack of a core to About A Boy. Even in the moments when it’s having the most fun, it’s impossible not to ask why the thing even exists.