Mr. Sunshine presents an interesting predicament for me as I try to convey my thoughts about the pilot, which I first saw in May. There are parts of it I liked a lot – basically any scene with Allison Janney. But like many pilots, some things don’t quite gel, yet you can see some potential. Then ABC redid parts of the pilot and there are significant tonal differences between the original pilot and the new version and I liked the first version better. There are parts of the original pilot still in place, so it is somewhat of a mishmash. I imagine the second episode will present a better idea of what the show is attempting to be.
In Mr. Sunshine, Matthew Perry plays a self obsessed, narcissistic, manager of a big sports arena, who upon his 40th birthday realizes he wants more and wants to connect with other human beings. The arena is called The Sunshine Center and Matthew’s Ben Donovan is rather ornery, thus the title is meant to be ironic. The problem for me is that in the original pilot Ben was very ornery. The new version feels like focus groups and lots of network notes intervened and said “Viewers love Matthew Perry playing loveable, not crabby”. So there are scenes reshot that make him less brittle. Also, in the original pilot we are told, but not shown, that Ben has a very casual, no strings attached relationship with Alice, played by Andrea Anders. There is a new opening scene in the new version that wants to cement the fact that Ben and Alice are both completely okay and on the same page with the status of their relationship. The scene also has Ben describing his job to a young fan of one of the sports teams playing at ther arena. It feels like the network wanted a scene of exposition at the outset to explain the premise more clearly. Yet Matthew seems rather “sunny” in that scene and thus in the pilot, he doesn’t really seem that ornery at all. I guess it’s a minor quibble and the average viewer will never have seen the original pilot, but it made a pilot that had some issues seem even more murky to me.
The other problem for me is another reworked scene that exists to illustrate how removed from reality Ben’s boss Crystal (Allison Janney) is. She tells Ben that John Mellencamp is on the schedule and that when he comes to town “I’d like to make love to him”. Matthew responds with that great delivery of “I’ll see what I can do”, conveying a tone of, “you’re seriously out of your mind”. In the new version, they redo the scene with completely different deliveries. Crystal says it in a way that makes it sound like she’s not serious and Ben says it back in a way that basically says “I know you’re not serious”. It’s just not as funny. It wouldn’t stick out as much, except that ABC is playing the scene and delivery from the original pilot in their promos, non-stop, and so it’s jarring to see the scene recreated completely differently, and not as well. This, the average viewer that has seen the promos, will notice (or maybe that’s just me) . I don’t mean to harp on theses not incredibly important points, but as I said, these new changes in the pilot made a somewhat choppy show, harder to evaluate. Finally, the show has added Jorge Garcia in the new version (for 3 eps), but just judging by his scenes in the new pilot, he only stands out in that one might say, “Hey, Hurley’s here”. Basically he served only as a distraction for me. Maybe in subsequent eps he is used differently.
Let me focus now on the things I liked about the pilot. As I mentioned, Allison Janney is terrific in the role of Crystal Cohen, the owner of the Sunshine Center. She’s wacky, kooky, basically nuts, sort of racist, oblivious and usually high. Allison Janney is a fantastic actress, but I have never seen her play a comedic role like this and she made me laugh a number of times. I also like the fact that it’s a workplace comedy with a setting we have never seen before. An arena that has sports, concerts, cirque de soleil type spectacles, dog shows and other completely unrelated acts and shows, is uncharted comedic territory. It presents lots of different and new opportunities and situations for comedy that are fresh. There are also lots of plausible excuses for real celebrities to appear. In the first 13 episodes artists as varied as James Taylor, Joe Jonas (playing a fictional rock star), and the Smurfs make appearances. Finally, Matthew Perry is a reason to watch. He’s just one of these people that makes anyone I know laugh. He’s just naturally funny. He also co-wrote this show and based Ben on who he used to really be (according to interviews he has given). There are lots of Chandler “isms” in the show. In the new pilot there are many more than in the original one. My guess is that Matthew and the network felt they can’t deviate too much from what people enjoy about him.
It’s strange, but I find a lot of similarities between this show and Michael J Fox’s return to TV with Spin City in 1996. Both Michael and Matthew weren’t “technically” the star of their last hit comedy. Both came back to TV in a half hour comedy in workplace settings. Both were/are far more “reactive” than they were in their last roles. Michael J. Fox’s, Mike Flaherty was the deputy mayor for Barry Bostwick’s, Randall Winston. He, like Crystal Cohen, was wacky and was doing many politically incorrect things that Mike and now Ben has to clean up. Spin City also had to find itself. In the first 13 episodes it was trying to be a workplace comedy AND a “Mad About You” relationship type show with Carla Gugino playing Mike’s live in girlfriend. There was lots of good in it, but the show was uneven and had to decide what it wanted to be. After 13 eps, Carla Gugino was dismissed and the show focused squarely on the Mayor’s office and gave Michael J. Fox an opportunity to date many different women, and the show to feature different actresses and lent itself to more stories.
(As I just alluded to, Ben is less Chandler here as Matthew gives many of the funny moments and lines to his co-stars. His reaction shots are mostly where Matthew brings his brand of funny.)
I guess what I am saying ultimately is that Mr. Sunshine is far from a perfect pilot, but there is potential. Most shows need a good 6 eps (at least) to figure themselves out. Modern Family is the exception, not the rule. Cougar Town is a wonderful show now, but it resembles the pilot only in that the same actors are in it, playing the same characters. Most critics love Parks & Recreation now, but I bet those same critics would acknowledge that the first 6 episodes were less than stellar.
I like certain things in Mr. Sunshine but the show needs some work. But I like the cast and do see potential. I hope the show figures itself out in future eps. Between the cast, the setting, and Allison’s great performance there is a foundation for a really good show here. I hope they find it.