You can understand why Chuck Lorre would want to go dark with his new series, “The Kominsky Method,” for Netflix. The serious half-hour is where the cool kids are hanging out these days: “Homecoming” and “Transparent” on Amazon, “Atlanta” and “Better Things” on FX, “The Girlfriend Experience” on Starz.
And as the most successful sitcom creator around, with an almost unbroken 25-year string of hits that includes huge moneymakers like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” Lorre has some leeway. A track record like that has to come in handy when you’re pitching a show whose punch lines mostly deal with death, loneliness and incontinence. It also helps when you can get Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas — 16 and 41 years removed from their last regular television work — to play the aging frenemies at the heart of your story.
Inevitability isn’t a good argument for a TV show’s existence, however. “The Kominsky Method” (eight episodes arrive Friday) isn’t a disaster; it has a certain warm-bath appeal, if you don’t mind a thick foam of prostate jokes. But it is adrift in a bland netherworld between Lorre’s precision-tooled, laugh-a-minute network comedies and the quieter aesthetic of the alt-sitcom, lacking the strengths of either.
Douglas stars as Sandy Kominsky, an acting coach of minor renown whose promising career as a performer never quite panned out. Thrice divorced, he runs his studio with the help of his long-suffering daughter, Mindy (Sarah Baker), dates his 20-something students and hangs out with his agent and apparently only friend, Norman Newlander (Arkin).
[Read the Times profile about Michael Douglas and his return to television at age 74.]
Putting Douglas in the role of a silver-haired Hollywood Lothario (his hair is fantastic) who chose integrity over stardom can be seen as a clever bit of casting, both for and against type. The real (unintentional) twist, though, is having him play an acting coach who pushes his students to be honest onstage — given that Douglas, in his highly successful career, has consistently given closed-off, impenetrable performances.
The one really notable exception was his relaxed, completely convincing portrayal of the middle-aged writing teacher Grady Tripp in “Wonder Boys” (2000), and the scrambling, half-principled Sandy is a little like Grady 20 years down the road, without tenure. Douglas is clearly comfortable with Sandy, and his performance is amiable and easy to like. But it’s not much more than that: As a showrunner and writer, Lorre (who gets full or partial writing credit on all eight episodes) hasn’t done anything to raise Douglas’s game.
What he has given him are platitudes and attitudes, the outline of a well-meaning Peter Pan confronting mortality and isolation without the substance. A sitcom character, in other words. You could argue that this is the point: As Sandy skirts financial ruin and vacillates over his relationship to an “age-appropriate” woman (played by Nancy Travis, 17 years younger than Douglas), Norman frequently calls him out on his shallowness.
But those observations aren’t insights so much as obligatory comic beats. Moving into single-camera naturalism, Lorre carries with him the structures and comic sensibilities of the multicamera network sitcom — he just slows the pace, stretching out the setups, and ratchets down the jokes, as if explosive laughs would be unseemly in these quieter surroundings.
The show’s sensibility is also decidedly retrograde and fueled by Hollywood nostalgia, which can be appealing when Sandy and Norman are meeting for lunch at Musso & Frank Grill but unappetizing in the scenes at Sandy’s studio, where nearly every scene mocks the naïveté and political correctness of the young students.
And while the bromance of Sandy and Norman is the heart of the show, the masculinity-in-moth-balls atmosphere can be overpowering. If you’re a man who hasn’t heard of retrograde ejaculation, you’ll Google to see if it’s a real thing, after which you’ll feel a little sick to your stomach.
Particularly egregious is the treatment of Norman’s daughter, a pill-popping head case played by Lisa Edelstein who shows up for a few episodes to vex her poor father and is completely forgotten once she is dropped off at rehab.
Norman, who experiences a tragic early loss and grows progressively morose and antisocial, is a bum part. But Arkin, still bringing sharp wit to aggravation and aggrievement, is the best thing about “The Kominsky Method,” even when the writing takes Norman into kvetching “Curb Your Enthusiasm” territory. If you have to listen to someone complain about the modern world (“Skype — what a stupid word”), it might as well be him.
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