Ask any improv comedian worth their applause and they’ll tell you that the key to any effective scene, regardless of length, is a believable relationship.
In the case of ABC’s mid-season comedy entry, “Mr. Sunshine,” the action never seems like an improv scene. The line readings and plot complications seem too pre-planned and calculated to be off-the-cuff. Yet the show’s struggle to find a ratings foothold indicates that it could learn some tricks from its unscripted counterparts.
Co-created by star and “Friends” alumnus Matthew Perry, “Mr. Sunshine” follows the daily life of the fictional Sunshine Center, a sports arena in San Diego. Perry plays Ben Donovan, the Sunshine Center’s manager.
“Mr. Sunshine” airs smack in the middle of the work week, on Wednesday nights. One reason the show might have staying power in the future is that it bears no resemblance to any office environment I’ve seen ““ unless Bailey, the L.A. Kings mascot, routinely hangs around the marketing division in full costume, as the Sunshine Center’s signature puma does here.
Also upping the ante on craziness is Crystal, the Sunshine Center owner and Ben’s boss. This frequently off-color executive is played by Allison Janney, who elevates the show’s forced gags and gives a chance to the one-liners that are more goofy than witty.
But a likely reason for the show’s wild ratings swinging from week to week is that the show seems to be having a hard time straddling the line between insanity and believability, rather than carving out a comfortable gray area.
The show is at its best when someone takes charge and actually exhibits competent leadership. Do people really enjoy watching a half hour of ineptitude? On “Parks and Recreation,” Leslie Knope’s numerous idea binders and ill-advised retreat locations certainly flirt with abnormally high quirk levels. But she’s an effective boss, as this season’s “Harvest Festival” episode demonstrated.
No one would mistake the whimsical environment of Sacred Heart Hospital from “Scrubs” for a functioning residency locale, but the characters were fleshed out, most of the personal relationships rang true and Zach Braff’s J.D., love him or hate him, provided a solid anchor for the goings-on.
“Mr. Sunshine” doesn’t need Matthew Perry to change the show’s format and start giving candid confessional interviews. Nor does he need to narrate a montage of office proceedings over a Guided by Voices sound track. He just needs to portray the character that the half-hearted, five-second theme song would suggest.
Ben is purported to be a mean boss and an unhappy guy, yet the audience hasn’t seen any significant consequences of that or any substantive reason for him to change. So far, we’ve only seen him get “this close” to some attractive females and draw some icy glances at work, but nothing of consequence to contrast that with. Whether he shows some real inner turmoil or just starts smiling less, Ben needs to be, well, less likable if the show’s going to deliver on its promise.
The frustrating part of shows that premiere in February is that right about now is when writers start to settle down and hone in on broad character choices. One of the more noted improvements of “Mr. Sunshine” is Crystal’s blissfully ignorant, 20-something son Roman, who has progressed from cartoon-like punch line to lovable pest. The conversations between Roman and Ben, which at the beginning of the show seemed empty and obviously constructed, now give the show a chance to play to its stronger pop-culture laughs. One poignant discussion of Waterworld yields this gem: “If the world is covered in water, why is everyone so dirty?”
Last week’s episode garnered a 15 percent jump in total viewers from the week prior. If the rest of the ensemble slides into believability or establishes a consistent level of absurdity, those gains may become more consistent.
If you’ve ever sang “Guy Love” in a public place with a fellow “Scrubs” fan, email Greene at [email protected]