I will now review “The Odd Couple,” an odd-couple comedy.
Premiering Thursday on CBS, the third television (and fourth screen) version of this Neil Simon war horse stars co-creator — or co-re-creator — Matthew Perry as slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison and Thomas Lennon as fastidious fussbudget Felix Unger. Those who missed Garry Marshall’s first sitcomization of Simon’s 1965 Broadway hit, or the 1982 short-lived African American TV remake, or for that matter never saw it onstage, may be the ideal audience for the new iteration, having no basis for comparison and some possibility of surprise.
The show looks good on paper. That the premise — the close-quartered clash of the messy and neat, the raw and the cooked — is comedy gold has long since been settled. It has a cast full of people I like — not only the leads but supporting players including Wendell Pierce and Dave Foley, as “the guys,” Yvette Nicole Brown as Oscar’s assistant, and Leslie Bibb and especially Lindsay Sloane as sisters who live downstairs, a conceit taken from the stage play.
Indeed, with alterations for era and situation comedy, the pilot collapses the meat and the arc of the play into 22 minutes. (It incorporates a couple of its jokes as well — Felix now leaves Oscar annoying electronic messages where once he left little notes on his pillow, but either way they are out of corn flakes.) The difference is that Felix, who becomes the divorced Oscar’s roommate when his own marriage ends, doesn’t move out at the end; they will be tied to each other so long as the show shall live.
How long that will be, I wouldn’t care to guess. While some jokes land, and some characters hint at what they might do once they get something to do, the show — which is to say, the pilot — never really lights up.
The conflicts in the opening episode are more asserted than earned; the pilot is old-fashioned — based on a text 50 years old this year, after all — in ways that are not always productive. (Wives are still for getting away from, though you miss them after they’ve thrown you out.)
And as the story of two divorced men who enter into a kind of dysfunctional marriage of their own, with Felix the sensitive wife (cooking, cleaning, crying) and Oscar the thoughtless husband, it trucks in ideas of effeminacy and manliness that are at least a little outmoded, if obviously not yet dead.
The new show does not beat around that bush:
“I’m developin’ a little theory about why his wife wasn’t happy,” says Pierce’s character, who has just gotten the full Felix effect. (Lennon plays him with some of Tony Randall’s melodiousness, but in a softer key.).
“He’s not gay,” says Oscar.
“Are you sure?” Foley’s character asks. “He seems a little gay.”
“No,” says Oscar. “He seems incredibly gay, but he’s not.”
(Though, what if he were? In 2015, there’s no reason Felix couldn’t have been thrown out by his husband.)
Perry has been used well post-"Friends,” in “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” the briefly lived “Mr. Sunshine,” guesting on “The Good Wife.” And there is no reason why his interpretation should be anything but his.
He doesn’t need to replicate the gruffness of TV’s Jack Klugman or the demented majesty of Walter Matthau, who created the part onstage and reprised it for the film. But he seems to be occupying a plane half-removed from the other actors; there is an odd ghostliness to his performance, a dazed sameness to his readings, which vary in volume but not in intensity.
I am not ready to write off the show quite yet. Pilots are deceptive, and the thing with characters as extreme as these is that you need to get them out into the world, reacting with something other than whether their shared space is too messy or too neat, or Felix’s presence is cramping Oscar’s style.
In any case, what we can say for sure is that you never have seen the last of “The Odd Couple.”
‘The Odd Couple’
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)