ABOUT A BOY: First Thoughts on NBC’s Man-Child and Child-Man Sitcom

About A Boy NBC

About a Boy (2014) – Episodes 1 – 5 – Created by Jason Katims – Starring David Walton, Benjamin Stockham, Minnie Driver, and Leslie Bibb.

The one good thing about the abysmal Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore movie, Fever Pitch, is that it guarantees that no adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel will ever be the worst adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel, because that title has been locked up for all eternity.

NBC’s new single-camera sitcom, ABOUT A BOY, is the second adaptation of Hornby’s novel of the same name, but that was over a decade ago and a movie and this is now and a sitcom. And American. Hugh Grant’s bumbling charm has been replaced by David Walton’s aged frat boy shenanigans. Which is to say, Walton’s Will Freeman just wants to bang hot chicks, hang out, and bang hot chicks, even if that means lying about having a son who has leukemia, as he does in the opening episode in order to bed Dakota (Leslie Bibb), a hot chick he just met.

There is a cringeworthy amount of type-driven sitcomness to ABOUT A BOY, which is less a problem with the show and more a problem with my dislike of sitcoms. I’ll watch a thousand episodes of Archer, Venture Bros., and South Park, but the last American sitcom I watched for more than three or four seasons was Seinfeld. It’s the formula that grinds me to dust. Twenty minutes of re-establishing the characters’ broad types, having a funny situation, and learning the same lessons week after week. Every so often a sitcom like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will come along, I’ll love the hell out of it, and then eventually I just decide one night to not watch it and I never go back. Right now, there’s only two live-action sitcoms in my Hulu queue: Brooklyn Nine-Nine and ABOUT A BOY.

If I want funny, I’ll watch Stewart, Colbert and @Midnight.

All of which is prelude to saying I really like ABOUT A BOY, but history tells me I won’t be around for long.

Will Freeman just wants to be a bro. Fiona and Marcus Bowa (Minnie Driver and Benjamin Stockham) move in next door, and because he’s a bro, she’s a New Agey vegan and he’s a smart but socially awkward 11-year old. Each episode follows the same basic formula: Marcus wants to hang with Will, Will doesn’t want to hang with Marcus, Will ends up hanging with Marcus, Will ends up sacrificing some of his bro freedom to help the kid out, and Fiona doesn’t appreciate this until just before the credits roll, when she begrudgingly appreciates it. Toss in some supporting work from continuing object of Will’s lust, Dakota, and Will’s best friend, Andy (Al Madrigal), a married man with multiple kids that has lost whatever bro-ness he once had.

When the show focuses on the relationship between Will and Marcus, it’s at it’s most effective. The pairing of the man who needs to grow up and the kid who needs to be more of a kid makes for an effective comedic duo. Marcus is almost blindly positive and that makes him endearing. For all of the man-child and child-man dynamic sets up the Will and Marcus relationship, it’s Marcus’ desire for long-term relationships (of any kind) versus Will’s desire for short-term relationships (of mostly a sexual kind) that creates the foundation for their relationship, and provides the show’s best moments.

To ABOUT A BOY’s credit, the show does move a general story forward. In the fifth episode, “About a Plumber,” Marcus pushes the idea that Will is going to be his dad one day. Will, of course, freaks out (which is already pretty tiresome), and sets up boundaries for the explicit purpose of the show breaking them back down within 20 minutes. Fiona wants these boundaries because she’s a vegan and Will eats meat so, of course, they have to hate each other. It also comes out that Fiona hasn’t had sex in a long time (maybe 11 years long), so Dakota decides to help her get back on the horse, and creates a scenario by which Fiona goes out with a plumber named Lou (Will Sasso), because he’s just about the only man she’s met since moving to town.

While Fiona is out on her date, Marcus stops in next door at Will’s, and Will breaks it to the kid that he just doesn’t like his mother “like that,” which leads to him giving Marcus the sex talk, which leads to Marcus biking across town to the restaurant where Fiona and Lou are on their date and making a huge scene. It’s all really well done, and forces the characters in the show to acknowledge the sitcom tropes an audience might well expect to be pre-determined: that Will will forego his bad boy ways to settle down with Fiona and become Marcus’ dad. This makes the episode as much about setting boundaries for the audience as it does getting Marcus to acknowledge that his family fantasy ain’t happening.

Marcus is kid enough to have these fantasies, man enough to admit that they were misplaced, and changed enough to call Will “dad” one last time, just to get a rise out of Will and his mom.

“About a Plumber” also gives us Fiona’s best (really, her only good) moment of the show, as she acknowledges that sometimes Marcus needs a man in his life. That this realization comes through Will admission that he cares about Marcus and wants to be a part of his life makes it a doubly effective scene. Fiona is the one character that the show needs to fix. She’s such a mess as the series opens that it’s hard to take her seriously. The most painful moments in the show are when she’s being the over-protective mom outside of the home environment. In “About a Girl,” she uses her “talking stick” at a gathering of moms to try and plead another mom to have her daughter invite Marcus to a party. Marcus is, of course, doubly damned at school, being both new and different, and Fiona espouses a brand of that insipid “everyone gets a participation ribbon” mentality that’s based on protecting her son rather than allowing him to grow.

I can’t stand it. That philosophy has its place, of course, but when it results in Fiona first getting Marcus a pity invite and then having her, Dakota, and Will crash the girl’s party to protect Marcus because they don’t believe in him, it becomes the essence of cringe-worthiness that I find no pleasure in watching.

ABOUT A BOY is a good show, despite the problems with Fiona’s character (and it’s a problem with the character, not with Minnie Driver). I think David Walton’s a funny guy, and after a few sitcoms that failed to connect with audiences (I really liked Bent, and ABOUT A BOY plays like a softer version of that show), I hope this one takes off.

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