Mr. Sunshine debuts tonight at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC.
Mr. Sunshine is one of those shows where I want desperately to like what’s on screen, but the execution leaves too much to be desired. Virtually everything about this show should add up to one of my favorite comedies on TV. Instead, virtually everything falls flat. From the cast filled with comic ringers and promising up-and-comers to the tone of the show to its winning premise, there’s every chance here that Mr. Sunshine could be not just good but genuinely great. It’s even on a network that’s seen a bit of a minor resurgence in comedy development in the last few years, coming up with such winners as Better Off Ted, Cougar Town, and Modern Family, not to mention solid B-sitcoms like The Middle. And yet if Mr. Sunshine were to the level of The Middle, I’d be watching it every week. Instead, it’s going to turn into one of those shows I skip, despite all of that promise.
The premise of the show is both simple and enormously elastic. Matthew Perry plays Ben, operations manager for an event center in San Diego, one that plays host to an eclectic mix of events, from extravaganzas on ice to the circus (and that’s just in the pilot). Ben’s one of those guys who’s trying his best to avoid any more commitment than he absolutely has to have, which is why he keeps his relationships with both the women he sleeps with and his co-workers on an easy, breezy level. He’s sarcastic and just the slightest bit fond of dark gallows humor, and his workplace provides plenty of opportunities for, say, an elephant to wander through the background of a scene or an army of clowns bearing axes to burst through the door, terrifying some, despite their generally helpful intent. All of these sight gags give the pilot a nice, surreal buzz.
Ben’s surrounded by colorful characters, played by terrific actors. The owner of the event center (its name is Sunshine, in case you needed to know where the title comes from) is Crystal, played by the always reliable Allison Janney, who can turn even lazy shtick like her character singing a song that could potentially offend just about anyone of any race into something approximating at least a smile. Crystal’s—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—often drugged out of her gourd on assorted prescription meds, and she has a bad habit of saying and doing outrageous things, particularly when she’s out of her mind. She dumps son Roman (Nate Torrence, defining overgrown man-child) on Ben, hoping he’ll find the guy a job. Ben’s colleagues include casual sex partner Alice (the always wonderful Andrea Anders), perfect and happy Alonzo (James Lesure), and receptionist Heather (Portia Doubleday, in an underwritten role she makes her own). The pilot, at least, features Jorge Garcia, playing the Jorge Garcia role as a backstage guy Ben can’t remember the name of, thus calling him Bobbert. (It’s curious, as the pilot certainly seems to set up Garcia as a regular, yet he’s already been cast in a new show for next year, and he doesn’t seem to be in any episodes past this one.)
So, yes, there are a lot of staid elements in that setup, but the cast is great, and the setting and premise are ingenious. The operations manager of an events center should provide for tons of great gags, as all manner of occasions cycle through the main floor, and Ben has to deal with kinks in the schedule that should have been ironed out long ago, kinks that will hilariously provide metaphors for his day to day life. (In the pilot, he has to figure out how to get the ice cleared from the center’s floor, even as he confronts the fact that his feelings for Alice might go beyond those of a casual fling, thus… THAWING his heart! Get it?!) Plus, I mean, it’s hard to go wrong with circus folk wandering through the background of the frame when you need to make things look funny. And even if these people are all playing well-worn types, they’re well cast for those types. Janney plays a lot of crazy women, but she always finds a new spin, and she does here.
Finally, there are two additional elements that should have this poised to join the pantheon of good comedies on the air right now. The tone of the show settles two steps away from center, toward the darker side of the scale. There’s nothing terribly pitch-black, so far as humor goes here (you’ll probably find darker gags over on FX’s Archer), but the tone of the show matches Perry, meaning wry, sardonic, and occasionally despairing is the order of the day. Like the best Perry characters, Ben can be an asshole, but he often comes off as a ridiculously self-righteous one, a trick Perry somehow makes lovable. And on top of everything else, Thomas Schlamme, he who perfected the walk and talk on Sports Night and The West Wing, has stopped by to direct the pilot, ideally bringing some nice framing and some good pacing to everything he touches.
But here’s the thing: Almost none of this works. Sure, the cast is full of old pros, who will elicit a smile or chuckle here and there, and sure, the premise is great, perhaps meaning this show will find its feet in a few episodes or so (though ABC’s refusal to send anything out beyond the pilot is troubling). But what’s here is limp and unfunny, and the actors’ efforts to make things funny just makes everything seem desperate. Perry, who was one of the few salvageable things left over on Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, seems to have forgotten to act in a single-camera setting, bugging out his eyes and overselling jokes like he’s counting on the live studio audience to swoop in and save his ass. Janney’s trying even harder, though she somehow makes it seem graceful, while everybody else tries to find some space in the chaos created by the two leads. Anders and Lesure underplay. Doubleday and Torrence try to match Janney and Perry. It creates a weird, comic mishmash that never gels.
The show never wholly earns its darker tone, either. The name of the show is meant to be ironic—look at this grumpy Gus they call Mr. Sunshine!—but ABC, a network that’s terrified of letting you think things for yourself, makes sure to underline nearly every scene with zany, self-consciously goofy music, as though they’re terrified the slightest hint of darker humor just barely peeking around the edge of some joke will turn off the audience. The show would work better if Perry were a true asshole, who needed a swift path toward redemption but was, nonetheless, endearing enough to score with the many attractive women he met. Instead, he’s just kind of an asshole, a guy who seems like he maybe read a book about being assertive in the workplace and is thinking about trying it on for size. And Schlamme, usually so good, lets too many scenes drag on far too long and is generally unable to get the actors to seem like they’re all in the same show.
If I’ve ever seen a sitcom I would be less surprised by performing an unprecedented turnaround, it’s Mr. Sunshine. The elements are all there, and the cast is game. But in the pilot, at least, ABC seems to have a dead show walking, something that has all of the right ingredients but never finds a way to go from being something that seems amazing on paper to something that can sustain itself when it’s actually up and shambling about. More than anything else, Mr. Sunshine is a slow, shuffling zombie comedy, a series that looks like a good comedy and moves like a good comedy but is missing that essential something nonetheless.