“I’ve come to realize that almost everything in dating and relationships has a parallel to sports,” says PJ Franklin (Jordana Spiro). “Especially baseball.” This would be why she narrates her sitcom life using sports clichés. You know, her friends comprise her team, and they have chemistry, endure slumps, even need to be managed, so that each guy might achieve his potential and in so doing, make everyone else look better.
PJ’s team is based in Chicago, where she writes for the Sun-Times, apparently mostly on the Cubs, though she doesn’t actually do much writing in TBS’ first original sitcom, My Boys. Instead, she spends much of her time telling you what it’s like to be the girl among a set of sports-invested boys, hanging out, playing poker, “hunting” for chicks. PJ handles her situation — inside and outside, “one of the boys,” but also occasionally reminded that the boys do realize she’s a girl — with a certain resolute charm. If Spiro wrestles some with the frequently slow and tacky script (the sports metaphors are laid out as if for beginners), she’s got skills, both charismatic and accommodating, good on her own and in a group.
This is helpful, because she spends most scenes with that group, a selection of typical contemporary sitcom guys, that is, well-meaning, beer-drinking, nachos-chomping. They sound like they’ve watched Bull Durham a few to many times, and look like they’ve stepped out of Vince Vaughn’s version of Chicago, the one that serves as background for the Jon Favreau scenes in The Break-Up. (The city itself appears as shots of Wrigley’s exterior or the occasional bar or street sign, as the series is actually shot in L.A.) PJ’s boys are overgrown children, amiable sorts who call each other “dude” and share rudimentary romantic advice (“After the third date, chicks start expecting stuff”). PJ both participates and observes, her voiceover setting up and summing up each episode’s events.
This set-up has obvious limits. “I guess you could say my place is the team’s clubhouse,” PJ says helpfully, where they gather every week for cards and conversation (the show features lots of both, and very little on the job stuff, as actual professional players and fields would cost money to tape). Each boy has a spot on the team, as PJ tells it: Kenny (Michael Bunin) and Mike (Jamie Kaler) are “great infielders” and Brendan (Reid Scott) is the dependable “veteran,” a best buddy who moves in with PJ when he breaks up with his (unseen) girlfriend. In the pilot episode, a new guy shows up: Bobby (Kyle Howard) covers the Cubs for the Trib and he and PJ have to work through their mutual attraction while also negotiating where he’ll fit in the line-up (he plays shortstop on the team’s actual baseball team, whose games we hear about but don’t see).
The initial ambiguity of their relationship — will they kiss? will they tell the other boys? — provides precious little tension. This is not a bad thing, as the confusions mostly show PJ’s utter sanity: you’re not embarrassed for her, and you don’t feel depressed watching her figure out the “mixed signals” (Episode Two’s title). Still, My Boys is often earnestly predictable. “The reason I love sports,” PJ says while contemplating a date with Bobby, “is because you know where you stand: someone wins and someone loses, it’s black and white.” When an evening’s romantic possibilities go awry (because, Bobby observes, PJ says “the guy stuff” and so leaves him feeling “a little freaked out”), she laments the lack of umpires and referees. “Shouldn’t somebody get a penalty here?” she wonders.
The sports language probably looks cuter on paper than it sounds here, where it’s reductive and repetitive (and again, over-explained, as if aimed at viewers who don’t know much about sports). That said, PJ is refreshing: a confident girl disinclined to instruct her boys, put her hands on her hips, or spend much time in the kitchen (when she does decide to serve brie and wear makeup one night, her boys are all over her such strangeness). It’s also good to see a sitcom not set in a suburban home near the in-laws.
But the basic themes are tedious. Her BFF, Stephanie (Kellee Stewart), a friend from journalism school, is “plenty girly enough for both of us.” Their conversations offer counterpoints to PJ’s time with the guys. The girls browse the merchandise at flower shops and sit at outdoor café tables, while Steph advises PJ on how to handle romantic situations (in one case, how to “unhurt his feelings”). The show seems poised to think about race as well as gender stereotypes, but gets caught up for a minute when PJ tries to fix up Steph with Amad (Kiko Ellsworth), only to find that he’s interested in her, ungirly PJ. When Steph asks her outright about it, PJ stammers that she is indeed “looking forward” to dating a black man, but had more or less assigned Amad in her mind to Steph: it’s an awkward moment, exposing yet another limit. There’s something to be said for the fact that My Boys calls itself out, but a next step would be welcome.
For the most part, the show remains intent on jokes about gender stereotypes. While it’s frustrating that the boys lapse into desperate-ish “hunts” for girls at bars (“We decided to adopt a pack mentality, like wolves or velociraptors”), it’s almost worse that PJ’s own most successful excursion has her dressed in a nice blouse, drinking martinis in an upscale restaurant (where, she complains, the “service is crazy slow”), and, as she says, acting like an “adult.” When she comes home to the clubhouse and informs her teammates that she’s going to “take a bath,” they roll their eyes. What’s happened to their girl?
Sometimes, PJ says, “You get a signal and you have exactly no idea what it means.” And sometimes, you know exactly what it means. If growing up means falling in line with prescribed roles, when do we get to grow out of them?