F. Scott Fitzgerald, former celebrity golden boy of American letters turned failed screenwriter, wrote that there “are no second acts in American life. “ In the long morning-after hangover of his last years, Fitzgerald failed to understand that time is a flat circle. 35 years ago, Robin Williams, a 27-year-old actor-comedian just two years out of Julliard, became an overnight star on Mork & Mindy. A teenybopper throwback to the contrived dopiness of My Favorite Martian and I Dream Of Jeannie, Mork & Mindy became something of a critics’ darling, because of the freshness of Williams’ buoyant presence and his improvisational technique. In a TV sitcom, in 1978, actors making up their own lines was as revolutionary as—well, as revolutionary as some of the things that had been going on in movies and theater that really were revolutionary. Magazine profiles of Williams noted admiringly that parts of the scripts for the show consisted of the simple stage direction, “Robin does his thing.”
The Crazy Ones, Williams’ return to series television after more than three decades of work, much of it amazing, in movies and on stage and TV, has the name of a star producer, David E. Kelley, in the credits, and a solid grounding in the experiences of John R. Montgomery, a former ad man who feeds the writers ideas based on his 33 years in the business. But the built-in selling point of the show comes down to the same thing that was at the heart of Mork & Mindy’s appeal: Watching Robin do his thing. Some things have changed since 1978, the most obvious costing the show its most prospective viewers right off the bat: Williams has been riffing, at the drop of a hat and sometimes at excessive length, on talk shows, one-man gigs, and any other forum that would have him for a long time now, and the freshness got beaten out of his act ages ago. He’s still a game little rooster, though, and he’s not fool enough to try to carry this show by himself. He enjoys seeing the sparks that other funny actors can give off and works and plays well with others. The good news is that the sitcom form has gotten a lot more receptive to loose byplay between comedians since Garry Marshall’s heyday, and The Crazy Ones surrounds Williams with a supporting cast that’s a big improvement on Pam Dawber and Conrad Janis.
The Crazy Ones has come a ways since its pilot, a tame affair that incorporated the name of an actual fast-food hamburger chain to such a degree that it was worth wondering if the producers had worked out some kind of secret weekly-sponsorship deal with a different company for every episode. As Erik Adams noted at the time, the pilot’s greatest pull came from the rapport between Williams and James Wolk as Williams’ star writer, Zach. As the star of Kyle Killen’s tragically short-lived Lone Star, Wolk made himself instantly likable by sheepishly downplaying his own good looks and embedding a trace of shyness in the self-promoting con-man hero. But as the enigmatic Bob Benson on Mad Men, Wolk showed that he could make a strong instant impression when it’s called for. He gets to combine his assets here: Zach isn’t just a brilliant ad writer, he’s the living embodiment of salesmanship, partly because of his own attractive packaging, and partly because he’s so completely shallow that he doesn’t know anything but salesmanship.
Williams, who treats his staff as family, unabashedly embraces Zach as his favorite, which could have easily bee used to generate tension between him and both Andrew (Hamish Linklater), the art director, and Williams’ daughter and business partner, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. But Wolk plays Zach’s shallowness as his source of vulnerability, which is both fresher and surprisingly touching. He sometimes picks up hints that there’s some plane out there where good looks and glibness aren’t the only prized qualities, and it troubles him. In one recent episode, Zach’s Teflon-composure fell apart completely when he ran into the girl who got away, and she explained to him that she didn’t fall out of love with him—she’d never loved him and their relationship was purely physical. It was like seeing HAL 9000 react to being disconnected by getting drunk and embarrassing himself on the dance floor.
Generally speaking, the women on The Crazy Ones have not fared as well as the men, though it’s hard to tell whether that’s because the writers don’t know what to do with them or because they’ve been sticking to what the writers give them more diligently than Williams, Wolk, and Linklater. Amanda Setton, the unlucky actress who was dropped from The Mindy Project after half a season, is mostly stuck with cringe-comedy one-liners about what a perverted weirdo she is when she’s not at work, but she does her best to give them some spark. Gellar is the show’s weakest link, and in her case, she’s definitely hampered by the writers’ conception of her character. The big joke is that Sydney is, and always has been, the grown-up in her relationship with her father. This is now extended to the workplace, where she’s the grown-up in an office full of zanies. Just how hard did Gellar take the cancellation of Ringer? She’s a little young to be turning herself into Margaret Dumont.
In the early episodes, the show tried to lay track for future storylines by suggesting that Andrew and Sydney are in love but that she’s too gun-shy to make the first move, and he’s too shy, period. Traces of that subplot still tentatively surface from time to time, but there’s no chemistry between them, and it’s hard to see anything ever coming of it without both the writers and actors dropping everything else, getting behind it, and pushing, hard. The Crazy Ones doesn’t seem to be in much danger of becoming that kind of show though. It’s not for people who want to get caught up in a game of “will they or won’t they?’ but for hardcore aficionados of comic acting, who may or may not keep track of the plot points, but will patiently wait for the moments when the people onscreen hit a sustained groove together and start to cook.
Linklater executes some of the best cooking, as his performance here, after being trapped in his awful smug-villain role on The Newsroom last summer, constitutes a return from the dead. Of all the candidates for “future character development” in the early episodes, the one that’s worked out is the idea that Zach and Andrew, who look as if they’re fated to be rivals, are actually in a symbiotic relationship, which the show likens to that of a shark and a suckerfish. The show treats Sydney’s love life as a series of gags, with zero emotional carryover from one week to the next. But when Andrew’s head is turned by a new, more modest collaborator, and the partnership is threatened, it’s both funny and genuinely distressing, and Wolk’s big eyes are never shinier or more childlike in their pained bewilderment than when he sees Linklater working with someone else. Zach and Andrew—Wolk and Linklater—are the real love pairing of the TV season. They complete each other.