By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 9:39 PM
Matthew Perry's "Mr. Sunshine," which debuts Wednesday night on ABC, gathers a pretty good cast around a mildly intriguing pitch - the daily business and antics that occur within an aging, 17,000-seat arena in San Diego - and then exerts a whole lot of energy being only half-funny. It's usually a bad sign when you spend most of the first episode of a new comedy making a mental list of the reasons it's not working.
Perry - who executive-produced and helps write "Mr. Sunshine" and will never fully shake the lingering effects of his success as Chandler Bing, the "Friends" character with whom he is forever associated - stars as Ben Donovan, the acerbic manager of the Sunshine Center.
Here, within the Sunshine's gloomy concrete corridors, Ben speaks mainly in that quippy, irony-laden burst we know all too well (Bing!), barking orders at his staff - the hockey ice must be melted in time for the circus! But boss, the heater, she no workeeng, etc. - while trying awkwardly to relate to them as human beings.
One employee Ben is sort of relating to is the marketing manager, Alice, with whom he's been having no-strings-attached sex. Alice is played by Andrea Anders, and if she looks familiar, then perhaps you remember her in ABC's (sadly) short-lived comedy "Better Off Ted."
And if "Better Off Ted" looks familiar, then you'll (sadly) appreciate the ways in which comedies like "Mr. Sunshine" often fall flat. Even when the pacing and writing and performances seem to line up, some intangible quality fails to quite hit the spot. "Mr. Sunshine" is another show that eschews proven comedy formats, such as filming before studio audiences, and instead opts for the newer, cooler form, a la "Scrubs," "Cougar Town" and "Community," in which the riffs are fast, the digs are sharp and the laughing is entirely up to you.
On his 40th birthday, somewhere between unmelted hockey ice and the escape of a circus elephant, Ben has decided he likes Alice enough to ask her on a real date. Too bad - she's into Alonzo (James Lesure), a former athlete who now does public relations for the arena.
About that arena: It's difficult, in the first episode, to comprehend this choice of setting. After so many comedies set in office parks and high-rises, here we are asked to consider the inner workings of those hulking, architectural blights into which we shuffle in and out to see overpriced concerts, sporting events and boat shows.
Our relationship to these buildings is either civic (in the form of taxpayer dollars to build them) or corporate (in the form of ridiculous naming rights), and for a moment I hoped "Mr. Sunshine" would reveal something socially telling about the arena realm, in the way that "Sports Night" once covertly illuminated the cultural meaning of cable sports networks. Turns out the Sunshine Center is just another place in which to stage a workplace comedy - no different than all those sitcoms about magazines or restaurants.
But don't push the trigger on the Sunshine Center's demolition just yet. In the front office, the wonderful Allison Janney plays Crystal, the arena's demanding, pill-popping owner. If "Mr. Sunshine" succeeds at all, it will be thanks to Janney, who, since leaving "The West Wing," has found her calling in reliable character sketches within edgy comedies - in films such as "Juno" and "Away We Go."
Here, Janney has great fun playing a wackadoodle egomaniac, whether answering a phone that isn't ringing, woozily piloting a golf cart through the hallways, or by giving impossible orders to Ben: "I see on the schedule that John Cougar Mellencamp is playing here next Wednesday. I'd very much like to make love to him." Later, during an episode of intense, circus-related coulrophobia (fear of clowns), she hilariously ruins a press conference.
Is it too late to rearrange this show and call it "Ms. Sunshine?"
Mr. Sunshine (30 minutes) debuts Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.