Celebrity stunt casting is nothing new in network sitcoms. Stand-up comedians are the most common choice, but other stars from other media might be taped too, as if producers only think up a star and then construct a concept around him. The TV landscape is littered with the skeletons of such projects, many named after the supposedly bankable lead. This year, again, we confront more eponymous titling, in The Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Saves the World.
Two new sitcoms on CBS could have been called Robin and Sarah Michelle and The Will Arnett Show. While the network didn’t make that mistake, going with The Crazy Ones and The Millers instead, both pilots suffer from material that’s not the right fit for stars.
The Crazy Ones, premiering 26 September, is set in an advertising agency run by the brilliant and unbalanced Simon Roberts (Robin Williams) and his very responsible daughter Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar). While supporting cast members Hamish Linklater and James Wolk are amusing, this is clearly going to be a show about a daughter trying to keep her dad in check, and a dad trying to teach his daughter to loosen up, with little for anyone else to do but react. Williams and Gellar are certainly well suited to handle these roles, as she plays stern and a bit neurotic and he plays gonzo.
This dynamic has limits from its inception. And the first episode only amplifies those confines in that it doesn’t provide much in the way of planned lines for Simon. Instead, you can imagine that the script just says, “Robin does his thing.” True, Williams is one of the best ad-libbers of our time and his thing is usually very funny. But here, the scenes with Simon seem little more than Williams’ greatest hits. He’s been doing manic voices at breakneck speed for so long that when Simon goes off, it feels more like Williams reprising a ‘80s stand-up routine than anything organic to the show, much less anything original. The show also hints that Simon is actually suffering from a mental illness, and when the time comes for Williams to slip into pathos, we’re reminded of The Fisher King, Patch Adams, even One Hour Photo, films that provide more well developed contexts for the isolation he might feel in his lunacy.
If The Crazy Ones allows for similar development — which is surely possible in a TV series, if not exactly typical in a sitcom — if Williams comes to inhabit Simon, instead of the other way around, he might be more easily understood to live in the same universe as his daughter. Gellar already owns Sydney completely, and the best scenes show her trying to clean up after her father. But in order to construct this relationship, the writers — including creator David E. Kelley, Dean Lorey, Jon Kinmally, and Tracy Poust — have to up their game. The pilot’s storyline, which revolves around Simon and Sydney trying to get Kelly Clarkson to sing a McDonald’s jingle, is slapdash at best. It doesn’t help that the viewer suspects the script was approved by McDonald’s as a product placement deal.
While The Crazy Ones needs to make some adjustments to fit around its stars, it is in much better shape than The Millers, which premieres next Thursday. Watching Will Arnett play Jack, you have the feeling that he wandered onto the wrong set. You keep expecting him to start talking to the camera and turn the whole thing into a meta-sitcom about an actor trapped in a bad sitcom.
Of course, this thought crosses your mind because of Arnett’s work as Gob on Arrested Development. And that only makes the new show look worse: Arnett is far better with uncomfortable silences than laugh tracks. The Millers is a family sitcom in the bickering style of Everybody Loves Raymond, with Arnett playing a version of Ray Romano. But Romano was a relative unknown, a performer and writer who developed the material and made the viewer suffer enjoyably with him. Arnett has been shoehorned into this project.
And so: in The Millers, recently divorced Jack suddenly finds himself living with his parents (Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale), after they decide to follow his example and also get divorced. This could be fertile ground for comedy and it should be, given that the creator is Greg Garcia, best known for the hilariously quirky My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope. But none of the charm of those shows is evident here.
The Millers is definitely shooting for the lowest common denominator. The jokes are crude and broad. The pilot includes a running gag about whether or not mom farted. It should be noted that with material like that, The Millers may have a long life among the other middling sitcoms that populate CBS’ lineup, like 2 Broke Girls. Just don’t expect fans of Arnett’s previous work to be watching.