For some, 2002 must feel like yesterday: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was dominating box offices, the hands-free robot vacuum Roomba was invented (you’re welcome, Tom Haverford), and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was flying off the shelves.
For Matthew Perry, 2002 must feel like an eternity ago.
In 2002, Perry received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his work as Chandler Bing on Friends, the role which famously netted Perry and his co-stars million-per-episode price tags. In 2003 and 2004, Perry also received nominations in the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his role as Joe Quincy in The West Wing.
Coming off three consecutive years with award nominations, Perry must have felt he was heading for greener pastures when Friends ended its decade-long run of dominance in 2004. Surely he couldn’t have expected that, after 2004, his next three starring television roles would be for shows which all lasted twenty-two episodes or less.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Mr. Sunshine. Go On. These weren’t terrible shows. The Aaron Sorkin-helmed Studio 60 was nominated for multiple Satellite Awards and Emmys, and critics named it their “Best Overall New Program” in a Broadcasting and Cable poll. Perry was watchable in it, to boot; instead of sustained success, Studio 60 is Sorkin’s only television show to last but one season. Mr. Sunshine—with Perry as co-creator, executive producer, co-writer, and star—was met with mixed to negative reviews, and it was difficult for Perry to shine with a scene-stealer like Allison Janney around. I actually mildly enjoyed Go On, as background noise and in a barely-watching sort of way. But even in Go On, Laura Benanti was more electric. All of these shows arguably had room to grow, but were all cut down early.
Was it Perry, or something else entirely? Is he unlucky, or simply unhireable?
Whomever is to blame, the viewership numbers from the aforementioned three shows are as follows, for the premiere and last episode: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip premiered to 13.1 million viewers in September of 2006, and by June of 2007, had dropped to 4.2 million; Mr. Sunshine premiered to 10.5 million viewers in February of 2011 and dropped to 4.7 million before it was cancelled with four episodes to go; Go On, the most jaw-dropping of all, premiered to 16.1 million viewers in August of 2012 and, by its final aired episode in April of 2013, had fallen to 2.7 million viewers.
With David Schwimmer successfully segueing into stage and directorial work, in the last decade, Perry has become the undisputed least successful Friends star.
Bearing this in mind, I cringed when hearing that he and Thomas Lennon (whom I love) were going to be teaming up in another remake of The Odd Couple, the beloved 1970s Tony Randall and Jack Klugman sitcom. It’s not that the formula doesn’t make sense to revive; it’s Perry’s track record, and the quality of writing that usually comes along with his name.
The formula of The Odd Couple is still apparent all over television; in The Big Bang Theory, the relationship between persnickety, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), and the cool-by-comparison, Leonard Hofstader (Johnny Galecki), is the heart of the show; in Will & Grace, the particular, cleanly lawyer, Will Truman (Eric McCormack), clashing with the messy, slapstick interior decorator, Grace Adler (Debra Messing), made for plenty of laughs; and while there are other dynamics at play in New Girl, the relationship between the metrosexual neat-freak, Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and the slovenly former-law-student-cum-bartender, Nick Miller (Jake Johnson), are without a doubt the funniest moments on the show.
The Odd Couple’s dynamic resonates through the modern day…so why not try yet another remake?
Seeing that CBS’ name was attached, it seemed a show destined to be on for eternity; then I saw Matthew Perry’s name next to the title, as co-star, executive producer, and co-writer of the pilot. In this version, Oscar is a from-home sports radio host, the second time Perry has played a shock jock, including Go On. (Seriously, Matthew, if you want to talk sports this badly, there are podcasts for that sort of thing.)
This isn’t a knock on Perry’s obvious talent; I don’t find his brand of above-it-all smarm endearing, but plenty do.
But when the reviews for The Odd Couple started rolling in, it wasn’t the least bit surprising, was it?
The Daily Beast called it “The Laziest TV Show of All-Time,” citing that Perry “misconstrues continually raising the pitch of his voice as character development—like some SNL sketch satirizing Chandler Bing.”
IGN said: “In The Odd Couple, Perry plays [against] type as the unkempt, easy-going Oscar. (After playing Chandler Bing for so long, one might think he’d make a better Felix.)”
The opening line of the show’s review on NJ.com reads: “[Friends] alumnus Matthew Perry shuffles through the latest remake of [The Odd Couple] like a survivor of a particularly virulent form of PTSD—post-traumatic sitcom disorder.”
Deadline, forgetting Perry’s involvement in Studio 60, noted that “after two post-Friends comedic flame-outs with Mr. Sunshine and Go On, this new Odd Couple is Perry’s baby. He not only co-stars, but also developed the reboot, is executive producer, and co-wrote the fumbling pilot.”
The overwhelming majority of reviews are negative, and deservedly so: this one’s a stinker. Firstly, the implausibility of Perry’s Oscar Madison being a boxers-clad, in-home sports radio host who claims to be in the Sportscasters Hall of Fame, even though the actual title is: The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame (even that could’ve been sorted out with a quick Google search).
Also, I find it hard to believe that sports writing giants like Grantland Rice and Peter Gammons would call a sans-pants Matthew Perry, who delights in hanging up on callers mid-sentence, a colleague. Oscar also has an assistant who fends off his ex-wife and bookie; if only she’d drive back the egregiously aggressive laugh track, which assaults viewers like stepped-on landmines. The show’s one-liners (a sample; when a friend of Oscar’s starts to enter Oscar’s Felix-cleaned apartment with his shoes still on: “Hey, Roy! Put your booties on!”) feel as quickly constructed as the crew’s set design: Get it guys?! Oscar’s a slob! See the tie on his apartment wall?! See how he drinks beer when Felix drinks tea?! Do you get it?! What a hilariously ironic, yin-yang duo! Should I even mention Roy’s lamenting over not having a gay friend, because it would make him “seem more evolved”?
Never before has deft subtlety been so bulldozed through as it has been by the writers of 2015’s The Odd Couple.
For me, the big saving grace was that the bar where Oscar and Felix talk through Felix’s “trial separation” was covered in memorabilia and merchandise from my beloved New York Mets (I am aware that few people would consider Mets gear a “saving grace,” but I digress). Another is that when Felix moves in with Oscar, Lennon—despite all odds—begins to shine. Admittedly, Wendell Pierce as Teddy, and Dave Foley as Roy also sparkle, but they’re seasoned scene-stealers. But for the naysayers who blame a poor script for the problems? If Lennon can find a way to shimmer with this poor of a script, if only briefly, then why can’t Perry? His constant wide-eyed delivery on all of Oscar’s lines screams bombastic caricature.
There are also big differences for Perry’s latest venture: for one, The Big Bang Theory—the biggest show on television—is The Odd Couple’s lead-in. This past Thursday, The Odd Couple also preceded the Two and a Half Men series finale, and premiered to 13.6 million viewers. Sure, those numbers will decrease now that the paltry Two and a Half Men is gone (and good riddance), but not up to Perry’s usual drop-off.
With CBS sticking to hugely-watched shows, despite poor or even abysmal writing, The Odd Couple may be the steady job that has always eluded Perry. If Two Broke Girls—the most unfunny sitcom ever assembled, with a wildly inaccurate running tally of the Girls’ income closing out the show—is still on-air, The Odd Couple may never get the boot.
Perry may have found a steady paycheck, but will he ever elude the shadow of Chandler Bing? The head-bobbling, holier-than-thou Mr. Bing haunts Perry with a Heisenbergian lust. Not one review I’ve come across for The Odd Couple fails to mention Friends or Chandler. Understandably so, given the Friends casts’ gargantuan salaries.
Even with all of the criticism over his missteps, Perry keeps getting work, and may have found a home with The Odd Couple. Hearing the beloved theme song from the 1970s show begin the remake, all I could think was: “What a shame.” I just wonder if Chandler’s ghost will finally catch up to Perry and choke the life out of The Odd Couple.