The Odd Couple began as a Neil Simon play (1965), then became a movie (1968) followed by a culturally-ingrained TV series (1970), a Saturday morning cartoon (1975), a TV remake (1982) and now a second remake (2015).
The setup remains familiar: finicky neatnick Felix Unger (Thomas Lennon) moves in with his slovenly old college friend, the also-divorced Oscar Madison (Matthew Perry). Their lifestyles and personalities don’t match up, but their friendship always sees them through.
This 2015 incarnation of The Odd Couple has been a pet project of Matthew Perry’s for years; he is an executive producer for the show, helped develop it for TV, and also co-wrote the pilot (and, of course, stars in it). The pilot’s multi-camera format with a laugh track fits in perfectly with CBS’s other comedies, but whether that appeals to younger audiences who are increasingly shying away from that convention is less certain.
The Odd Couple‘s biggest draw for most, though, will be Perry’s attempts at another comedy series, after a number of projects that never found an audience. But the reason why people who initially come for Perry may stick around will actually be for Lennon as Unger. Lennon (Reno 911!) is a master of understatement and deadpan, even when he is portraying someone whose emotions are out of control. Though Perry hits familiar comic beats with practiced timing, Lennon adds a spark and unpredictability that at times keep the show’s format from feeling so tired. At his best, he’s reminiscent of David Hyde Pierce as Frasier‘s Niles Crane.
There’s more potential for the hopeful: The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce appears early on as a cigar-smoking, mumbling cop friend of Oscar’s, and Community‘s Yvette Nicole Brown is Oscar’s assistant (Oscar is in sports radio, and works out of his apartment). Less successful so far are the replacements for the original story’s Pigeon sisters — here, sisters Emily (Lindsay Sloane) and Casey (Leslie Bibb) as love interests don’t really add much to the story, and nothing to the humor. But, it shows that the world of the Odd Couple is stocked with enough odd characters to give the show a certain Seinfeld-esque novelty of “who’s coming through the door next?”
Some people can handle laugh tracks, some people can’t; it’s especially unfortunate though when there’s a poorly-executed scene like Felix crying, “20 years of marriage and now I have nothing!” that’s followed by raucous audience guffaws. But within the very basic framework of The Odd Couple‘s pilot, there are a few glimmers of a show that could be much funnier, like Felix’s perfectly delivered, “I’m sorry is this bothering you? I would pick a piece more to your liking, but it’s hard to play porn on cello,” and “I had two Chardonnays and a cherry NyQuil last night, so I’m a bit of a wreck myself” that make the initially overused and grating laugh track seemingly fall away.
Fans of Perry and Lennon may want to be early adopters here for reasons of support, but the more casual viewer may want to wait and see how the show develops over its first several weeks. CBS is successful at what it does, though that style is not for everybody.
Every time I write about comedy pilots, I feel I have to give the disclaimer that most comedy pilots aren’t great at informing viewers how a show will actually turn out. And, in general, most comedy pilots are pretty terrible because the humor is excessively broad, and the story is completely focused on introduction and setup. Occasionally, a pilot will break out of this mold, but The Odd Couple is not that show. Yet. Still, there’s enough hope in Lennon’s performance alone to say that like Felix and Oscar’s initially rocky roommate relationship, it may just take time.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated.
The Odd Couple premieres Thursday, February 19th at 8:30 p.m.