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TV Review: Mr. Sunshine – “Pilot”: The Return of a Friendly Face

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It feels appropriate to open a review of Matthew Perry’s new vehicle, Mr. Sunshine, with the observation that Perry’s production company (Perry is star, co-writer, co-creator, and executive producer) is named Anhedonia Productions. “Anhedonia” is the inability to feel joy. Maybe he’s not acting, after all.

Matthew Perry

Mr. Sunshine has moments of freshness, and a setting and characters distinct enough that we haven’t seen them done to death in other shows before. But its insistence on making its central character grow and learn, rather than committing wholly to his inability to care or feel, hampers a decent performance by Perry and gives a generic feel to a show with the potential to be different.

The show stars Perry as Ben Donovan, the Manager of Operations of the Sunshine Center (he’s Mr. Sunshine — get it???), a sports arena located in sunny San Diego (as seen in approximately ten seconds of exterior footage). Ben is — and since he is played by Matthew Perry, you might already have guessed this — a sarcastic, emotionally distant quip machine. You might also guess that Perry makes him far more likeable and relatable than such a character would seem on paper, and again you’d be right. Perry is a winning personality best suited to television (which I don’t mean as an insult — some people work better on TV than film… and if only someone would tell his former co-star Jennifer Aniston the same, it would spare the world at least one loathsome big-screen rom-com per year). Ben is a jerk, but you still can’t help liking him.

Most of the action takes place on Ben’s 40th birthday (with this, Matt LeBlanc’s Episodes, and Courteney Cox’s Cougar Town, a lot of ex-Friends are making quite a fuss about hitting that big 4-0), during which a circus is due to perform in the arena, but the ice from the hockey game the previous night can’t be melted. This leads to a great bit with Lost‘s Jorge Garcia, who guests as someone whose name Ben can’t remember:

Ben: You’re the head maintenance guy, right?
Jorge: Yes.
Ben: And your name is… Bob? Bobinson? Bobert?
Jorge: …Yes.
Ben: Really? Your name is Bob Bobinson Bobert?

Jorge: Two years ago you told me you only wanted to hear me say yes.

Ben has romantic problems. Of course he does! What are you, new? He’s on a friends-with-benefits basis with Alice, Sunshine’s Marketing Executive. Alice is played by Andrea Anders, who was so wonderful on Better Off Ted, so much better than she had to be on The Class, and so… prompt and in-frame on Joey. Hey, this marks the second doomed project in which she has co-starred with former Friends actors! (Oh… too soon, Mr. Sunshine?)

Andrea Anders

Neither Ben nor Alice are ready for commitment at first — Ben is in fact portrayed as a ladies man, in the tamest possible fashion (other than a couple of brief dialogue suggestions, his status as a player is represented entirely by one leering glance at an extra). But guess whether that changes by the end of the pilot? (It does.) Ben finds himself ready to raise the stakes in their relationship, but Alice is already planning on moving in with her other love interest, Alonzo (James Lesure, from Las Vegas, and who also played a small role on Perry’s previous series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). Alonzo is the Charity and Community Outreach Director for Sunshine (as I learned from ABC’s website), and his personality matches the name of the arena as much as Ben’s does not. He is eternally happy, effervescent, and optimistic, to Ben’s immense irritation. He’s also Ben’s best friend — or not:

Ben: Alonzo? He’s my best friend!
Alice: You hate Alonzo.
Ben: I do hate Alonzo.

Interesting sidenote (interesting to me, anyway): Alice does not exchange a single line of dialogue with Alonzo, her soon-to-be live-in boyfriend.

Ben has wacky co-workers. Of course he does! What is this, opposite world? His boss Crystal, played by an excellent Allison Janney (I don’t need to remind you how awesome Janney was on The West Wing, do I?), is a pilled-out mixture of confident inappropriateness and delusional negligence, both hilarious. Allison JanneyShe can be slyly coaxing Ben toward resolving his romantic problems one minute (in the middle of a speech featuring a wildly racially-insensitive song of her own composition), the next ruining a charity event by hurling a small child at clowns she thinks are menacing her (and who could blame her — clowns are nightmare fuel). Crystal wants Ben to find a job for her estranged son, Roman (Nate Torrence, also of Studio 60), whose skillset seems to comprise an enthusiasm for boats, Mafia movies, and… that’s it. Ben’s secretary, Heather (Portia Doubleday), is defined entirely by the fact that she once set a man on fire. And her inexplicable crush on Roman.

There are a few nice little background touches throughout. The cook in the concession kitchen sneezing into the bowl of hamburger meat, for example, or the thrift store trophy angel Crystal uses as a hood ornament on her golf cart, which later appears on an actual trophy. The show is fast-paced and surprisingly visually appealing for being confined basically to one giant location (the director is Thomas Schlamme, veteran of both The West Wing and Studio 60). And the whole cast gets its fair share of laughs, Janney and Perry most of all. But Perry’s far better at absurd, face-contorting reactions or coolly ironic detachment than he is at the emotional growth central to the pilot’s story. The show is a lot better when it reins in the earnestness and goes for the weird, or just plain mean (Ben to Roman, on Roman’s estrangement from his mother: “I don’t care! I find it virtually impossible to care about any of that!”). Perry should take a key from his production company, and dial up the anhedonia (and dial down the predictable romantic triangle that appears to be in the offing). That little bit of distinctiveness to his character could justify the show’s existence a lot more. As is, Mr. Sunshine is entertaining, but far less than it could be (and certainly not worth bumping the superior Cougar Town from its timeslot for a month and a half).

That timeslot, by the way, is Wednesday night at 9:30 PM on ABC.

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