Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The pilot episode of The Crazy Ones hinges on an impassioned pitch from Sarah Michelle Gellar, attempting to persuade Kelly Clarkson to sing a jingle for the advertising agency run by Gellar and her father (played by Robin Williams). Gellar traffics in persuasion, so it’s an easy guess as to which direction Clarkson goes—but this scene carries even more weight because it lays The Crazy Ones’ central philosophy on the table. Advertisements aren’t about products like an Apple Macintosh or Big Mac, Gellar says—they’re about ideas. And to this show, created by David E. Kelley, the idea is king. This is best communicated by the caricature of Williams that looms over the show’s central set, a likeness topped off by a swirly neon lightbulb.
But don’t just take the mural’s word for it: Take Gellar’s fawning description of the 1998 Apple ad that gives The Crazy Ones its title as well. Or take the ad itself, a 60-second spot originally narrated by Steve Jobs that toasts the world-changing efforts of figures as disparate as Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jim Henson—all people with great ideas, but also tremendous risk-takers. If only The Crazy Ones had the gall to follow their example.
Long before the Cult Of The Showrunner was firmly established, Kelley himself could’ve qualified for inclusion among Jobs’ “crazy ones.” In fact, the year that ad debuted, Kelley premiered his most precarious work: Ally McBeal, a genre-busting show whose shadow he’s been unable to escape since the early ’00s. Sure, he had luck with another group of wise-cracking lawyers thanks to Boston Legal, but that show suffered from an Ally-like early peak, and subsequent efforts like Harry’s Law and Monday Mornings just haven’t been able to find a foothold in these modern TV times. With The Crazy Ones, he’s partially responsible for a half-hour sitcom pilot that can be best described with a word that wouldn’t have come within 50 feet of Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, or Picket Fences: Safe.
Or as safe as a pilot can be when it doesn’t so much star Robin Williams, but rather throws story and character into his orbit. Ostensibly Williams is playing a fictionalized version of longtime ad chief John Montgomery, but the script is geared toward the actor playing “Robin Williams,” hyperactive comedian, pop-culture sponge, and man of 1,000 inflections—one of which works its way into the premiere by Williams’ second line. In other words, he’s doing exactly what Williams is hired to do as the top-billed actor in a television pilot—The Crazy Ones is also predicated on the fragile relations between his character and Gellar’s, but their father-daughter dynamic is still in flux as the elevator doors close on the first episode.
Surprisingly, the chemistry that keeps The Crazy Ones churning is that between Williams and James Wolk, continuing the best TV year any actor has ever had while exclusively playing ad men. Wolk plays the eye candy of the fictional Lewis Roberts + Roberts, a fitting role because it’s as if he’s the first co-star Williams has been able to see since Insomnia. There’s a bracing give-and-take between Williams and Wolk, and the spark they find in an improvised sequence opposite Clarkson is the highlight of the pilot (as well as the source of its only big laughs). As the episode gets more and more bogged down in the quest to keep the agency’s biggest client, the question of whether the characters of The Crazy Ones will ever shine through arises. The best Kelley shows are nothing without their characters, and the dynamic between Williams and Wolk suggests The Crazy Ones could arrive at a similar place—though it might squeeze Gellar out in the process.
But that’s really the only reason to keep watching beyond the pilot, a competently made half-hour with comedic rhythms and dramatic beats neither particularly comedic nor dramatic. In the same way that Wolk brings Williams down to earth, director and executive producer Jason Winer seems to have neutralized some of Kelley’s eccentricities: Rapid-fire patter and cinematically swooping cameras aside, there’s not much flash to the first installment of The Crazy Ones. It’s not a stylized, inventive piece of TV like the best Ally McBeals, but it’s not the fiery wreck of Kelley’s failed Wonder Woman pilot, either. The episode has the propulsive pace of a CBS hour-long, but that can leave the fun parts of a single-camera sitcom (like the jokes) behind in its dust.
Above all, The Crazy Ones is safe. Safe safe safe safe safe. And that’s an odd feeling to get from a show whose characters do so much talking about taking a flying leap without knowing where they’ll land.