Matthew Perry has starred in four shows since Friends ended in 2004. First there was the hilariously awful Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2007, one season). Perry followed that up with a double dose of bad sitcoms: Mr. Sunshine (2011, one season) and Go On (2012, one season). He has reunited with Friends co-stars in Web Therapy and Cougar Town (Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox, respectively), starred in the made-for-TV white savior movie The Ron Clark Story, and had a short arc on The Good Wife. And now he’s got a headlining role on The Odd Couple, which premieres tomorrow night on CBS. The existence of this sitcom is baffling, not only because it’s a weird show to reboot in 2015, but also because it’s weird that television keeps giving Matthew Perry so many chances.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Matthew Perry just fine. I have watched 17 Again more times than I should admit in a public forum. He is a solid actor for the sitcom roles that he chooses (generally sarcastic, messy underachievers who sometimes care too much about sports and who cause sitcom women to think, maybe I can fix him; maybe this is also what networks think of Perry). I may dislike Friends, but I recognize that he nailed the part of Chandler Bing. Perry is also especially good in Studio 60, as he’s well suited to Aaron Sorkin’s world of rapid dialogue.
Still, it’s a little strange that networks are still so eager to give him new shows based solely on the success of a series that began two decades ago, especially since his new projects keep bombing. Studio 60 was notoriously awful and remains an easy punchline to this day. Mr. Sunshine was completely forgettable — I watched every episode and all I can recall is something about an arena, maybe. Go On was NBC’s boring, watered-down version of Community, a blatant and desperate attempt to create a mainstream hit by tweaking the formula of a cult sitcom that was still airing on the very same network. All of these shows failed: Go On was ranked #74 in its first and only season, while Mr. Sunshine didn’t even get a chance to air all of its episodes before it was canceled. But Perry forges on against all odds (OK, so there aren’t many odds against him) and keeps landing roles.
Perry’s latest television experiment is the Odd Couple reboot in which he steps into the shoes of iconic character Oscar Madison, a sloppy, divorced bachelor with a radio show (in 2015? Sure!), who takes in his best friend, neat-freak Felix Unger (Thomas Lennon, Reno 911) after Felix’s own divorce. It is not a good show. It is certainly not the worst thing on television, or on CBS, or even on CBS’ Thursdays-night lineup (though it might soon be, as Two and a Half Men is finally ending its run). But it is seemingly committed to preserving the retro feel of the original series by ensuring that there is nothing new happening. The jokes, all of which are punctuated by laughter from an overly enthusiastic audience who are possibly watching an entirely different show on their phones, are absolutely vintage.
Felix’s main characteristics are that he is very neat and very emotional. He cleans up after himself, tucks in his shirt, and is sad about his wife wanting a divorce. Naturally, The Odd Couple rolls out the obvious gay jokes: “He seems a little gay,” a friend observes. “He seems incredibly gay,” Oscar retorts to a roaring audience. There are also plenty of yawn-inducing men-vs.-women relationship jokes. One scene involves Oscar’s poker buddies (Dave Foley, Wendell Pierce) hanging around to complain about their wives: “You’ve met my wife. Why would I want to live longer?” Oscar has a wall of televisions that his friends admire; one claims that you can either have the TVs or have the wife. Because, you see, women do not like to watch television and they especially hate it when their husbands watch it, too.
Another confusing joke involves Oscar’s neighbor and crush, Casey (Leslie Bibb), who he lures to his apartment by sneaking his mail into her mailbox. Oscar and Felix are set to go on a double date with Casey and her sister Emily (Lindsay Sloane). Upon introducing herself, Emily gestures to herself and her sister and self-deprecatingly remarks, “Yes we can from the same gene pool. Thanks, nature!” Which, I suppose, is a joke about how Emily is unattractive, particularly in comparison to her sister? But, she isn’t? It’s basically just, “Well, this actress is brunette, so let’s pretend she’s not as hot as her blonde sister.” It is more confusing than offensive, and absolutely devoid of laughs.
Neither Lennon nor Perry is memorable here, despite the fact that they are both objectively talented enough to work with the material. Instead, Perry yells all of his lines while Lennon exaggerates every single action — it’s CBS Multi-camera Acting 101, and it wears thin by the end of the cold open.
Mostly, The Odd Couple serves as another chance for Matthew Perry to work on television. It’s actually a smart decision on his part: It’s a well-known story with a built-in fan base (fans of the original, fans of CBS in general), it’s premiering after the ratings juggernaut The Big Bang Theory, and it’s ostensibly taking the place of Two and a Half Men, a similarly awful sitcom about two men living together that relies on gay jokes (the straight men literally get married to each other this season) and innuendos. It has the potential to last forever, even if it never rises above mediocrity. But that’s probably perfect for Perry, who might get to finally settle down on a show for more than one season.