The biggest surprise with NBC’s sitcom About a Boy is that it took so long to make it. Is it to distance viewers from the 1998 Nick Hornby novel that became a great 2002 film starring Hugh Grant? Some series can be buoyed by their connection to the source material: Hannibal (also on NBC), or A&E’s Bates Motel are great examples. Others are dragged down by it (Dracula, another NBC offering), while a third set finds an entirely new way to express a story, that doesn’t really need a connection to the original material at all (CBS’s Elementary, or FOX’s nutty Sleepy Hollow). Hit the jump to find out which category About a Boy belongs to.
In the 2002 film, Hugh Grant plays a layabout ladies man, living off of the money his father made from a one-hit Christmastime wonder. He is then unexpectedly pinpointed by an awkward local boy (Nicholas Hoult) with a depressed, hippie mother (Toni Collette) as a friend, and after a lot of struggle and denial, finally accepts that he means something to this boy, and that — even more importantly — the boy means something to him.
Twelve years later, in a shaky start, About a Boy condenses the most familiar touchstones of the original material, while ripping from it anything that might actually resonate. Will is played by the younger David Walton, who doesn’t have the daddy issues or completely friendless life Grant’s Will did (Walton’s Will is also living off of royalties, but for a song he wrote). The boy (Marcus, played by Benjamin Stockham) is still pudgy, awkward and strange, and his mother Fiona (Minnie Driver) is a (pretty hot) hippie-dippy type. But it’s clear from the start that the internal difficulties and emotional issues aren’t there. Fiona’s crying and an allusion to depression (a recurring theme leading to some very dark moments in the original work) is a one-off here, and then she’s fine, nattering on about seitan.
It’s a change that makes absolute sense for a sitcom. But there are other little differences in the pilot that will niggle at fans of the original work — an ill-advised talent show appearance by Marcus is not a moment where Will sacrifices his own cool to save Marcus, to the confusion and ultimate derision from the crowd of students. Instead, Marcus is embraced with cheers and acceptance from his peers. Some will bristle at the blatantly upbeat changes, when the show could have stayed darker and been more interesting, but About a Boy makes clear that it’s not interested in diving particularly deep. It wants to cash in on the feel-good emotions, without paying full price for them.
While About a Boy is not a biting satire, nor is it meant to explore the depths of a man-child and a child who has seemingly grown up before his time (“I’m drinking soda from a bottle; we’re already through the looking glass,” Marcus tells Will), it does put the two together in ways that might not always make sense, but do bring out the best in each character.
Make no mistake, the show is definitely interested in Will and Marcus “learning something” every week, but it doesn’t often overdo it. It also makes the best of Will’s married friend Andy (Al Madrigal), who has three young children, and a life very different from Will’s. (For instance, unlike Will’s constant stream of one-night stands, Andy and his wife take some rare time off in one episode to catch up on their own passion … Homeland). Like the source material, Will is being left behind as his friends start families, but here he doesn’t seem to really take much away from it. Although, Marcus is more of a hinderance to Will’s playboy status than a boon, and Will making time for him in this version then does show some kind of maturity.
Still, after bolting through a number of barely linked quasi-homage moments from the novel to start, the show begins to become something else in its second and third episodes. The dialogue and pacing are quick and effective, and the volume of jokes allows for the more trite comments to be evened out by some genuinely funny bits, often thanks to Stockham. The show also very smartly sticks with the original work in clearly establishing early on that there is no romance brewing between Will and Fiona, a relief from what would otherwise have been an obvious will-they-won’t-they (and a mistake).
Ultimately, About a Boy has more going for it than the pilot episode would have viewers believe, and as the series rolls on, the jokes seem to be geared toward those who can enjoy the specificity of parent humor. Whether the series can continue to grow and mature — even if Will never does — remains to be seen. Like Marcus himself, there’s enough charm there to give it a chance, but only with a commitment to some patience.
About a Boy will have a commercial-free preview after Olympics coverage at 11:07 p.m. ET/PT on Saturday, Feb. 22, before airing in its normal timeslot on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.