Two new comedies — 'About a Boy,' 'Growing Up Fisher' — know how to play nice

San Francisco ChronicleFebruary 20, 2014 

  • ON TV

    'About a Boy': Premieres at 11:07 p.m. Feb. 22 before moving to its normal time slot of 9 p.m. Tuesdays on Feb. 25, NBC.

    'Growing Up Fisher': Premieres 10:38 p.m.Feb. 23 before moving to its normal time slot of 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays on Feb. 25, NBC.

Have TV sitcoms finally jumped the snark?

For years, it seemed, TV comedies were all about clever comebacks and snide put-downs. A few friendlier shows made it on the air — the always superb The Middle and the OK Last Man Standing — but more often than not, "nice" couldn't get arrested amid shows like 2 Broke Girls, Two and a Half Men, Anger Management, 30 Rock and The Office.

This weekend, NBC will offer early premieres of two new sitcoms after its Olympics broadcasts. They vary in quality, but both shows aim to be nice as well as funny.

The better of the two is About a Boy, previewing Saturday and based on Nick Hornby's 1998 novel, which was adapted for a Hugh Grant film in 2002. In fact, the show's pilot is so good, it's a hard act to follow: The second and third episodes are merely really good.

David Walton plays Will Freeman, a sexy single guy living in San Francisco and not doing very much these days except chasing women, thanks to his having made a bunch of money a few years earlier through his now-defunct band.

His new next-door neighbor couldn't be less of a free spirit. She is a single mom named Fiona (Minnie Driver) who has an 11-year-old son named Marcus (the astounding Benjamin Stockham) and enforces a whole retinue of New Age child-rearing principles. Fiona and Will clash almost immediately, but Marcus is in need not so much of a father figure as someone who'll just let him be a kid.

The last thing Will wants is to get too close to anything that feels like settled family life; of course, soon enough he's learning perhaps even more about real life from Marcus than Marcus is learning from him. The title of the show and Hornby's novel is meant to describe not only the actual boy, but the boy-man who has resisted growing up for far too long.

The show was created by Jason Katims (Parenthood), who brings a writer's sense of character to the script. The show is funny, warm and bloody irresistible because of the care taken with creating characters who are multidimensional, vulnerable and credible.

The performances by Driver and Walton, as well as Al Madrigal as Will's best married friend, are terrific. But the real heart of the show is Stockham. He was funny in the short-lived 1600 Penn, but what he does here with the character of Marcus is so good, you'd be tempted to think he's a small-size grown-up were it not for the extraordinary believability in his performance. Of course Will finds it impossible to resist taking him under his wing: You'll find him pretty irresistible as well.

A kid is also at the center of Growing Up Fisher, a moderately entertaining show about a kid named Henry whose parents are splitting up. Narrated Wonder Years-style by Jason Bateman, the show has lots of warm and fuzzy moments as Henry (Eli Baker) worries that his blind dad, Mel (J.K. Simmons), won't need him as much anymore if he has to divide his time between his dad and his mom, Joyce (Jenna Elfman).

Meanwhile, Henry's teenage sister (Ava Deluca-Verley) suddenly finds herself saddled with her new "bestie," Joyce, who is trying to relive her own teenage years.

Growing Up Fisher was created by DJ Nash, based on his own childhood experiences, and it does have a ring of authenticity. But it also has some problems.

The biggest issue is Elfman. She's a funny, appealing actress, but despite the fact that Mel and Joyce are splitting up, it's hard to believe there was ever any real chemistry between the characters because there's very little between the actors. Mel Fisher may be eccentric, as he tries driving cars and felling trees despite his blindness, but Joyce is a real loose cannon. The age difference between the two actors (she's 42, he's 59) is noticeable only because it underscores how ill-matched they are here.

The show seems a pale imitation of The Goldbergs, the much funnier ABC show created by Adam F. Goldberg based on his own childhood. Granted, the parents in that show, played to hilarious perfection by Jeff Garlin and Wendi McLendon-Covey, are more broadly written than the parents in Fisher, but at least you don't find yourself trying to imagine what they ever saw in each other.

Simmons is one of the most versatile actors in film and TV, but recent attempts to find the right comedy vehicle for him have missed the mark. He's fine in Fisher, but his skills aren't enough to make the ensemble more cohesive.

At least Growing Up Fisher and, to an even greater extent, About a Boy prove that "funny" can also be "nice."

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