The Washington Post

‘About a Boy,’ ‘Growing Up Fisher’: Late-winter slush

Benjamin Stockham as Marcus, David Walton as Will in “About a Boy.” (Jordin Althaus/NBC)
TV critic

Availing itself of what it mistakenly believes to be a captive audience, NBC is bringing out two painfully mediocre half-hour comedies this weekend during the slushy remnants of its Winter Olympics telecasts. Skeet practice, basically.

“About a Boy,” which will have a ­commercial-free premiere Saturday night before it moves to Tuesday nights, is adapted from a 2002 Hugh Grant movie that was adapted from a 1998 Nick Hornby novel; it’s about an emotionally stunted one-hit songwriter (David Walton as Will) whose bachelor lifestyle is interrupted by new next-door neighbors — a single mom (Minnie Driver as Fiona) and her precociously nerdy son (Benjamin Stockham as Marcus).

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

You could write it yourself from this point forward: Fiona, with her tofu/yoga mind-set, has coddled poor Marcus to such a degree that he must hop the hedge to seek paternal attention from the perpetually adolescent Will, whose life, we are made to understand, will remain pathetically hollow until he mans up and becomes a (substitute) father.

Once you strip down the predictable jokes (Will teaching Marcus about “the bro code of silence”; letting Marcus eat forbidden barbecue ribs), you’re left with a banal arrangement of gender and social stereotypes. Fiona’s new-age sensibilities are read only as a failure of parenting (are vegans the last group of people it’s still fine to make fun of?), and Will’s toxicity as a single man is viewed through the prism of disapproval.

More hopelessly, this is the fourth time we’ve been force-fed Walton as a sitcom star (the first three series didn’t survive), and each time he has played the same exact lackadaisical tomcat. I don’t know which is the bigger problem: that Walton keeps getting cast or that these roles in cardboard TV shows are always available.

‘Growing Up Fisher’

A somewhat similar problem exists for a marginally more talented actor, J.K. Simmons, who also keeps showing up in iffy sitcoms whenever he’s not in commercials for Farmers Insurance.

I thought “About a Boy” was bad, but then I watched “Growing Up Fisher” (which gets its Olympic preview Sunday night and then moves to Tuesday) and realized that things can always get worse, especially when the words “midseason,” “NBC” and “comedy” are used in close proximity.

Simmons stars as Mel Fisher, a blind husband and father of two who is in the process of divorcing his wife, Joyce (Jenna Elfman). The story takes place vaguely in the 1990s and is told from the perspective of the couple’s younger child, Henry (Eli Baker), in “Wonder Years”-style voice-overs supplied by Jason Bateman.

The central hook in “Growing Up Fisher” is that Mel is legally blind but has managed to hide his disability from his co-workers at a law firm; in fact, the only people who know he is blind are his wife and kids. Strange but somewhat true: “Growing Up Fisher” is drawn from creator D.J. Nash’s own childhood with a blind dad.

Just as it’s hard to keep up with how many failed sitcoms David Walton has starred in, I’m losing track of how many mawkish, barely funny (and usually failed) sitcoms these days are drawn from the writer/creator’s own family experience and upbringing.

Creatively, the story of Me is an awfully stifling place to start. Memoir has its place beyond the page, but sitcoms are usually not it — for the same reasons that family stories you think are so table-poundingly hilarious are difficult to convey to any audience larger than a dinner party. Network execs need to stop indulging this strange habit and ask writers and producers to look for pilot pitches someplace other than their home movies and photo albums. It’s boring.

About a Boy

(30 minutes) commercial-free preview Saturday at 11:05 p.m. on NBC; moves to its regular slot on Tuesday at 9 p.m.

Growing Up Fisher

(30 minutes) commercial-free preview Sunday at 10:35 p.m. on NBC; moves to its regular slot on Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.

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