‘The Crazy Ones,’ close to the bone
CBS fall comedy mixes fiction and fact in a disconcerting way
September 3, 2013
Usually, when people complain that there’s too much reality on TV, they’re tired of watching reality TV. But sometimes a fictional show contains too much real life.
The premiere episode of CBS’s new fall sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” set in a Chicago advertising agency, not only features a celebrity guest star playing herself and an actual company as the agency’s client but also makes repeated allusions to the biography of its star, Robin Williams. The blend of fiction and fact is awkward and sometimes uncomfortable.
But Williams’ still-manic energy remains fun to watch; the script has its moments; and the cast is good. If the series doesn’t keep it real, it could develop into something more consistently enjoyable.
Premiering on Thursday, Sept. 26, at 9:01 p.m., “The Crazy Ones” stars Williams as Simon Roberts, the eccentric head of a Chicago advertising agency who wonders if his best days are past him. His partner is his levelheaded daughter Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar).
In the first episode, their handsome co-worker Zach (James Wolk) tells them that the people from McDonald’s are coming to the office to fire the agency. Simon wins the agency a second chance by promising the clients that he can hire an iconic American singer to revive the company’s old “You Deserve a Break Today” campaign. They give him a day.
The colleagues concentrate their efforts on Kelly Clarkson, whose performance bucks the current trend of having celebrities play themselves as morons, egomaniacs or both. She tells them she doesn’t do jingles, but she is willing to duet with Zach on a sexy version of “It Ain’t the Meat (It’s the Motion).”
Clarkson acquits herself well, exhibiting none of the usual non-actor stiffness. But her presence is distracting: When she says she’s trying to develop a sexier image, we can’t help wondering if that’s a reference to her current career. And when Sydney barges in on a Clarkson family celebration to try to close the deal, we wonder if the people around the table are really Clarkson’s relatives.
The McDonald’s placement is more problematic. When Simon pitches the company’s representatives, in a style reminiscent of Don Draper on “Mad Men,” he’s also selling us viewers on the product. Whether or not McDonald’s paid for the placement, the company is treated respectfully, and the opportunities for satire are bypassed.
But the constant allusions to Robin Williams’ real life and career are the most disconcerting. When a TV star transforms himself into an above-the-title movie star and then returns to series TV when the leading roles dry up, it can be an occasion for Schadenfreude. Unusually, this show decides to address that.
The agency’s office is decorated with a giant caricature of a younger Simon that is, of course, also a caricature of the younger Williams. “Look at you, before rehab and two marriages,” says Simon, using biographical details that also pertain to the actor.
Later, Simon and Sydney both stare at the drawing, which Simon calls “the ghost that haunts us both.”
“You’re still that guy, Dad,” says Sydney.
As far as this episode is concerned, Williams still is. He does some rapid-fire shtick with a giant Rock’em Sock’em Robot, including an old gag about badly dubbed kung fu movies that Williams was probably doing as a stand-up in the ’70s.
Walking into the meeting, he adopts a Scots accent and says, “Welcome, the McDonald clan.” When he gets a stone-faced reaction, he says, “Whoa, it looks like someone had an unhappy meal.”
Known for ad-libbing back when he starred in “Mork and Mindy,” Williams may simply be reciting the script now, but his lines feel extemporaneous and work to his strengths.
Gellar does a good job as straight woman, although a scene in which Clarkson challenges Sydney to sing the jingle falls flat.
As Zach, James Wolk is just as attractive as he’s meant to be, and he holds his own in what may be an improvised rap with Williams. Andrew (Hamish Linklater), the agency’s art director, is underwritten, his main character trait being a tendency to try to talk over Sydney.
Lauren (Amanda Setton), an agency assistant, is a sexist stereotype. She says that she stalled some clients by “flashing” them and offers to let Simon smell her hair for confidence. If the stereotype is being used ironically, the irony is too subtle.
The script is by David E. Kelley, the creator of “The Practice,” “Ally McBeal” and “Chicago Hope,” whose recent track record — with such shows as “Harry’s Law” and “Monday Mornings” — probably helps him understand what it feels like to wonder if you’ve still got it.
Since Williams has shown himself to be a good dramatic actor, he and Kelley could probably put together a good comedy with a poignant edge. They don’t need to make this show about the elephant in the room, and they certainly should stop crowding more elephants in.
Here’s hoping the second episode will clear the room and give the actors and the audience room to breathe.
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