Ain’t No Sunshine in Mr. Sunshine
- Friday, March 18, 2011
The situation comedy is the longest lasting and most durable of all television genres. The first great one, I Love Lucy, began in 1951 and ran for six years on CBS initially, and everywhere else ever since.
It set the classic format for countless other series, a set of characters with comedic personas, who each week face a silly plot premise arising from those character traits. In Lucy's case, the red-headed title character, often seeking to show her Cuban bandleader husband that she can perform in his act or work at some other job, plotted and schemed toward guaranteed laughs. The scripts and performances were so good that the series has been continually syndicated around the world and viewers have their favorite episodes they love to re-watch.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez innovated the three-camera format where a live, play-like performance can be shot and the best shots assembled into the funniest version of the performance. The same technique is with us today with a series like The Big Bang Theory. It's another reminder that we like our sitcom characters humorously flawed and never learning from their near disastrous situations they get into week after week, season after season. But to strike comedy gold is as much chance as it is talent. Many a successful star or creator of one series has flopped in another. Why does one situation comedy find just the right tone, the funny frequency that keeps the audience in stitches and another one lies there like a trout thrashing on the river bank gasping for laughs?
Such is the case with Mr. Sunshine, a new comedy starring Friends alum Matthew Perry as Ben Donovan, the manager of an arena who is dour and sarcastic and wonders why he doesn't having any friends or any respect from those he oversees in the large performance venue.
Workplace comedies have a pretty consistent formula of a central character that interacts with co-workers with a range of quirks that offer potential for a variety of interpersonal and group hilarity based in their diversity. If the character dynamics work, you have the potential for a long-running comedy like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Cheers, both classic three-camera comedies.
Single camera comedies like M*A*S*H* or Modern Family tend to be somewhat more realistic in their treatment of plot and character. Mr. Sunshine is a workplace comedy that seems to have an actual stadium to shoot in making the show appear to have quite a budget. Maybe something could be budgeted to improve the humor.
Ben Donovan has managed the stadium for ten years and yet seems to be at the mercy of the many employees under him, who rarely bother to even feign respect for him. And why not? He's condescending or patronizing when he's not being sarcastic. When the stadium owner Crystal Cohen (Allison Janney) tells Ben to find busy work for her dim-witted son Roman (Nate Torrance), Ben takes him to a distant part of the building, remarking, "OK, this is as far away from my office as I could think of—I mean this is a good opportunity for you, see you at the Christmas party. " Such unconcealed contempt for his charge isn't funny because Roman, though a little strange, is a sweet, nice guy (in fact Torrance plays the only really likable character in the show.)
Ben seems sarcastic and petty, which when done right, can be funny—think Seinfeld--- but here it's done in all the wrong ways. Explaining why a joke isn't funny is as hard as explaining why a joke works—either it is or it isn't. On this show you can sense the structure of a gag, the setup and execution, but there's no punch to the lines, which come off a faux clever rather than actually comedic.
Stadium owner Crystal, another foil for Ben, is self-absorbed and supposedly a bit looney, but like most of the humor, speaks lines in a transparently jokey way. When she is advices Ben to throw an ice cream party to placate employees he has upset with his fake friendliness, Crystal tells him that "giving my employees ice cream has always cheered them up in the past—or was that giving them health care benefits?"
Leads in a sitcom function best when there are contrasting characters to better stir up conflict and Ben's opposite number is Alonzo, in charge of "Charity and Community Outreach," who is the genuine Mr. Sunshine, optimistically turning every lemon into lemonade. As such, he's a rather one-note character, necessarily a straight man for the whiny Ben to bounce off of.
The bottom line for any comedy is, does it make you laugh? Comedy can be a subjective experience—not everyone finds the same kinds of things funny, but Mr. Sunshine seems very much an acquired taste if you can wait a very long time to acquire it.
*This review first published 3/18/2011
**Watch Mr. Sunshine Wednesdays, on ABC
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