At this point, we should all be ready to just throw our money at Jason Katims whenever he has even a flicker of an idea. His track record as program creator includes Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, two series that are about as close to perfect as anyone’s ever gotten on network TV. Of course, these series are also ones that suffered/continue to suffer from poor viewership, despite heaps of critical praise. So it’s no surprise that no one’s really talking about Katims’ newest project for NBC, the sharp and completely endearing About a Boy.
Those who do watch Parenthood already have a foot in the door, as the two shows exist in the same universe. And not the same universe like Orange is the New Black and Community. We’re talking Buffy and Angel same universe. And oh yes, that does mean crossover episodes.
It seemed unlikely at first that this would work. After all, Parenthood is an hour drama, About a Boy a 30-minute sitcom. Generally speaking those two genes are equal opposites. But as About a Boy progresses into its first season, it’s clear that it has the deep sincerity that characterizes all of Katims’ work, and that makes it viable. When Parenthood’s Crosby showed up for poker night in the latest About a Boy episode, it not only mades sense, it made me downright giddy.
Let’s also take a moment to throw out any assumptions about the film or book About a Boy. Yes, those were darker, more subtle, more painful than this new sitcom. But if we’re cool with making endless adaptations and re-adaptations of past material for blockbuster purposes, we should learn to treat this the same way. It’s a new imagining of old basic material. And really, the material itself is pretty basic: A 35-year-old bachelor has his life upturned when a single mom and her young son move in next door. When you put it that way, it’s a surprise About a Boy was ever anything other than what it is now.
Will, the aforementioned bachelor, is played by a drippingly handsome David Walton, whose look is an ideal combination of “overgrown frat boy” and “guy your mom would call ‘adorable.'” The single mom in question, Fiona, is portrayed by the indomitable Minnie Driver, and her son Marcus is played by 13-year-old Benjamin Stockham. For this show to work, Marcus is the most crucial character–it’s About the Boy, after all–and Stockham delivers an unforgettable, completely lovable, completely hilarious performance. With the wrong actor, a show about a nerdy 11-year-old could easily veer into gratingly annoying territory, a la Two and a Half Men. But Stockham is bright and engaging and thoroughly adorable (fingers crossed for a delayed puberty) and his scenes are always highlights.Minnie Driver is built for TV comedy, and it’s delightful to see her in an environment where she can show off and have fun. Fiona is a granola-hippie mom who eats seitan, makes cheese curds, and believes in the importance of “nomadic years.” She’s grotesquely attached to her son (plenty of Norma Bates jokes get thrown around) to the point where she hasn’t even been on a date since his birth, for fear of leaving his side. Obviously this is one of the first things to be remedied, and although there’s only been one such episode so far, Fiona’s dating life is clearly going to be an integral aspect of the show.
And no, she’s not necessarily going to end up with Will. The writers have done an excellent job of making their relationship as begrudging neighbors completely believable without ever stooping to will-they-won’t-they territory. Their common interest is Marcus, not each other. Are they going to hook up eventually? Probably. But at this point it’s as likely (possibly more so) that they’ll get together once, quickly realize their mistake, and be friends for the remainder of the series rather than falling in love Jim-and-Pam-style. This leaves both open to explore dating options, which have been especially fun for Will, who gets the adorably psychotic Dakota (Leslie Bibb) and unattainable dreamgirl doctor Sam (Friday Night Lights’ Adrianne Palicki.)
About a Boy deals in stereotypes and clichés. But rather than apologize for its tropes or try to make a point of subverting them, About a Boy gives them all the weight and sincerity it can muster. We’ve got the douchiest bachelor, the crunchiest hippie, the lamest kid, all living in a single joint apartment. In the wrong hands or format (I shudder to think what might have happened with a multi-camera approach) they might all be too annoying to handle. But the nice thing about the single-camera show is that it gives time and importance to each character, and in doing so, the external obviousness of the stereotypes disappear. Will, Fiona, and Marcus are believable in their relationships and in themselves, and they are a pleasure to watch.True to both Katims’ and original author Nick Hornby, About a Boy is filled out with a terrific soundtrack, and is adorably hip without ever being cloying. (Even the Lumineers’ Hey Ho wasn’t too annoying when folded into the latest episode.) Its San Francisco setting isn’t fully developed yet, but there is potential there. And most of all, its emotional turns are both lighthearted and genuinely moving. This is a show you can laugh and cry to, but mostly cry laughing.
Don’t let this sitcom slip away too soon. It’s the most genuinely enjoyable comedy of the season.
About a Boy airs on NBC Tuesdays at 9/8c.