Matthew Perry adds his name to a growing list of old Friends veterans who have gone on to star in their own shows, for better (Matt LeBlanc in Episodes, if pressed) or worse (Courteney Cox in Cougar Town), in ABC’s new Mr. Sunshine, which scored the coveted time slot following Modern Family. Perry plays Ben Donovan, the manager of a San Diego sports arena that showcases everything from political events to circuses. His boss, the owner of the “Sunshine Center," who challenges Donovan with both her controlling, insensitive demands and her overly familiar quips about his personal life, is a self-involved, pill-popping eccentric with an inflated ego. And in a brilliant casting move, she’s played by The West Wing’s Allison Janney in what is already the show’s standout comedic performance.
Janney’s accomplishment is impressive. It’s no small feat out-joking Perry, who is a strong leading act in Mr. Sunshine, despite his obvious sitcom fatigue. You can almost hear him sighing and shaking his head between takes, and that’s not just the character beaming through. No one expects, or even wants, to see another Chandler Bing, but it wouldn’t hurt Perry to add some enthusiasm to his portrayal of a misanthrope in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Who knows – maybe art is imitating life. Regardless, Perry’s spot-on delivery has only become more seasoned, and he delivers genuine, hearty laughs that you don’t quite see coming with his perfect timing and trademark intonation.
The pilot opens on the day of Donovan’s 40th birthday, when he arrives at work to deal with whatever challenges might arise. These include transforming the arena from a hockey rink into a circus ring, determining if his new assistant is a murderer, overseeing his boss’ damage-control charity event, succumbing to nepotism and tolerating the unfazably optimistic Alonzo (an endearingly funny James Lesure) — a former sports hero who took a job at The Sunshine Center after blowing his career.
On top of it all, the beautiful blonde head of marketing (Andrea Anders) decides that she’s putting an end to her casual relationship with Donovan in order to get more serious about her life and move in with her real boyfriend – Donovan’s best friend and nemesis — Alonzo himself. Now Donovan must decide if the big 4-0 means that it’s time to make some changes in his personal life. One missing elephant, some traumatized children and a group of axe-wielding clowns later, Donovan is one step closer to taking a tentative step toward maturity.
Compared to his other “friends’” ventures, Perry’s Mr. Sunshine – on which he is a producer and writer – is already, hands down, the funniest. Perry still finds himself relying a bit too heavily on an ensemble, as though he thinks he can’t quite pull off a venture like this on his own, but the talent of the cast is so exemplary as to make this a miniscule crime. Don’t miss impressive comedic performances by She’s Out of My League’s Nate Torrence and Lost’s Jorge Garcia, as well.
As it stands, Mr. Sunshine has the potential to become a true force to be reckoned with on ABC’s primetime lineup, but a few things have to happen before that’s guaranteed. Mainly, the show needs to decide if it wants to play to its formidable strengths and morph into a quirky, offbeat comedy a la The Office or 30 Rock, or teach a moral lesson about growing up and finding love.
Let’s hope it chooses the former. If so, Perry needs merely to bring a little more irony and less misery to his delightfully misanthropic protagonist to ensure that nothing stands in Mr. Sunshine’s way.
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