“The Odd Couple,” premiering Thursday on CBS, is an odd choice for the latest act of dusting off a TV relic.
I’ve noticed that people who remember the popular Jack Klugman and Tony Randall series (which ran on ABC from 1970-1975, after a 1968 film starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, which itself was adapted from Neil Simon’s successful Broadway play) usually scrunch up their faces in pre-contempt when they see ads for this new version.
And who can blame them? Even to old people, “The Odd Couple” sounds like an old idea, best kept to dinner theaters and nostalgia trips. (While we’re on the subject, name one couple today, on television or in real life, that’s not odd. In a “Big Bang Theory” landscape, what does the word “odd” even mean?)
Yet here it is, uncooked at the center, starring the peripatetic “Friends” alum Matthew Perry in the role of Oscar Madison, intractable man-slob, and Thomas Lennon (“Reno 911!”) as Felix Unger, the recently divorced neat-freak who comes to stay for a night or two at Oscar’s high-rise New York bachelor pad and winds up becoming a permanent resident.
As you might imagine, some tweaking is necessary. Oscar, for example, is no longer a newspaper sports columnist (we don’t want to make him seem that far gone) and instead works as a sports loudmouth on talk radio.
Felix’s update requires a leapfrog over four decades of cultural progress, leaving behind Randall’s fog-filled closet of obfuscating prissy-ness. As a man who fusses over appearances to an obsessive degree, today’s Felix must directly deal with people who assume that he is gay.
“I’m developing a little theory about why [Felix’s] wife wasn’t happy,” declares Teddy (“The Wire’s” Wendell Pierce), one of Oscar’s buddies who has come over for a day of football-gorging on Oscar’s wall of multiple big-screen TVs only to discover that Felix is busily “plating” a bevy of vegetarian football snacks in the kitchen.
“He’s not gay,” Oscar tells his friends.
“Are you sure?” asks another of Oscar’s pals, Roy (Dave Foley). “He seems a little gay.”
“No, he seems incredibly gay,” Oscar says. “But he’s not.”
Well, all right, fine. But there goes your last chance to do something truly new and interesting with “The Odd Couple,” in which both Felix and Oscar might at last discover that sexuality, for some (perhaps you, Oscar?), exists on a continuum. Or they could set an example for straight-gay friendships between men and riff on it forever with as many dumb gay/not-gay jokes as the writers can think of.
It turns out that Felix doesn’t need any extra-critical attention in this new version. Lennon all but glides into the zone and brings Felix up to speed with 21st-century references and impressive yoga poses; if the show is successful, it will be thanks largely to him.
It’s Perry, now in his eleventyseventh mediocre sitcom in the post-Chandler years, who flails about in the pilot episode as this modern-day Oscar. He’s a cretin, he’s a sex hound, he’s gross, he’s obnoxious — yeah, yeah, but he’s not any of these things in a convincing or even freshly interpreted way.
Still, “The Odd Couple” is not a full-on disaster; Neal Hefti’s familiar theme music conveys (slightly funked-up, of course) and, for what it’s worth, original producer Garry Marshall lent a hand to this new version as a consultant. I promise that you have seen worse new sitcoms and will undoubtedly see some in the future that stink a whole lot more. The three or so laughs to be had in the pilot may well multiply to six in another couple of episodes, and it’s certainly easy to see why the show is an ideal placeholder for the schedule space being vacated Thursday night with the final episode of “Two and a Half Men.”
The less said about “Two and a Half Men” the better, don’t you think? Watching this watery remake of “The Odd Couple,” one is struck by the horrifying, “Twilight Zone” notion that we’ll all be strapped to hospital beds in the not-too-distant future, watching the premiere of a remake of “Two and a Half Men” and unable to reach a clicker.
(30 minutes) premieres Thursday
at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.