The Surprising Charm of NBC’s ‘About a Boy’

It’s been a while since I’ve last seen the About a Boy film and even longer since I’ve read the Nick Hornby novel it was based on, so I don’t remember specific details, just the overall plot and that I enjoyed it. But it still struck me as an odd choice for a sitcom adaptation. When it comes to Hornby, I’ve always been crossing my fingers for a dark comedic adaptation of A Long Way Down, preferably on a network like FX (maybe I’ll still get this wish if the movie does well). And despite my recent distaste for most of High Fidelity, I can still see how that record store would work as a setting for some zippy TV adaptation. The idea of About a Boy as an NBC sitcom with cheery promos didn’t make much sense to me, though. Yet the pilot episode, which got an Olympics push over the weekend and then re-aired Tuesday night, was surprisingly pleasant. 

It must be said that the pilot is just a quick review of the film’s plot. Stepping in for Hugh Grant as Will is David Walton, an actor who hasn’t caught a break despite his obvious talent and charming delivery, even when he plays a selfish asshole. The younger boy (because Will is also the titular boy), Marcus, is played by Benjamin Stockham, who was a standout on the two short-lived shows Sons of Tucson and 1600 Penn. Rounding out the cast is Minnie Driver as Fiona, the overly worried but mostly clueless hippie mom (and the character closest to slipping into caricature territory).

So if you’ve seen the film (or read the book), then you’ll find no surprises in this episode. Fiona and Will immediately dislike each other — she is unhappy with his public sex exploits, his loud music, his grilled meats, etc. — but Marcus takes an immediate liking to Will, even entertaining the notion of getting him together with Fiona. When Will spots a pretty woman (Leslie Bibb) going into a single parents’ support group and lies about having a kid just so he can sleep with her, he borrows Marcus to pretend the boy is his own son. The shit hits the fan, everyone is angry with each other, then everyone is sad, and then Will has a change of heart and ultimately sings a One Direction song with Marcus at a school talent show. It doesn’t sound great, but the results are better than expected.

About a Boy‘s pilot may feel like a skeleton because it rushes to set everything up for the series, but when the show slows down a bit, as it does in the next two episodes that were screened for critics, it also builds itself up and falls into a nice pace. Much of this has to do with the acting. Walton and Stockham play off each other well, particularly when combining Will’s lazy reluctance with Marcus’ naïve enthusiasm. Driver is always a fine actress even if she doesn’t have the biggest role (yet), though that may be a good thing while we wait for the writers to inject some more nuanced qualities into her character.

Mostly, I’d attribute my enjoyment of About a Boy to executive producer Jason Katims, who previously successfully adapted Parenthood and Friday Night Lights for the small screen. Both were movies (FNL was also originally a book), and both television adaptations are known for reducing their viewers into puddles of tears. This is why I fell in love with Parenthood, but it’s also my biggest worry about About a Boy (besides the story’s sustainability, I suppose). Sometimes the emotions in Parenthood come naturally and I allow myself to blubber like a baby, but sometimes it can feel so robotically forced that I can’t help but roll my eyes.

See, Katims knows how to write a family — whether it’s the Taylors, a diverse football team, or the extended and overcrowded Bravermans — so I have faith that he will eventually turn this odd trio into a sleek unit. But if he doesn’t do it carefully, the show runs the risk of being too cheesy to enjoy. Fortunately, About a Boy isn’t overly concerned with forcing these three to immediately forge a bond. Rather, it wants to first explore the budding friendship between Will and Marcus, who are easily the best duo on the show. About a Boy is also fine with letting Will be a selfish jerk (though thankfully not an unwatchable one) for the time being, instead of magically maturing overnight. He takes baby steps but doesn’t leave the room.

About a Boy didn’t premiere with a bang and isn’t going to be hailed as NBC’s greatest new sitcom (though it’s much better than the familiar and unfunny Growing Up Fisher), but I can see it growing into something quietly special, provided the network keeps it around.