Aging, and in youth-obsessed Los Angeles no less, is the subject and setting of Chuck Lorre’s new Netflix series, “The Kominsky Method.”
The cruel realities of growing old and the absurdities of Hollywood have always been low-hanging fruit in TV and film, but this dark, funny and moving half-hour comedy (streaming Friday) is so much more than the sum of its enlarged prostate and struggling-actor jokes.
Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas) is a many-times divorced acting coach whose successful on-screen career is mostly behind him. Norman Newlander (Alan Arkin) is his cranky, old-school agent and friend who’s just been widowed after decades of marriage to the love of his life. Armed with plenty of sardonic wit, the two men navigate loss, messy family dynamics and their own ambition in a world that just assumes they’ll quietly retreat into their golden years (spoiler alert: they don’t).
The formidable star power and talent of Douglas and Arkin elevate this single-camera comedy right out of the gate. As Sandy and Norm, they bring substance, depth and an understated sense of humor to a format that often relies on rote plots, one-liners and exaggerated characters.
That’s not to say that “The Kominsky Method” doesn’t tackle plenty of familiar themes; it does. There’s the standard fare of creaky-bone references, getting up to use the bathroom several times a night and the perils of dating after 50 — or 70, but it’s embedded inside a bigger picture that’s personal and unique to these two men.
In other words, this isn’t the story of two seniors struggling to keep up with a changing world. Sure they make fun of “stupid,” “made-up names” like Skype and lament the cluelessness of the acting studio’s millennial students. But Norm’s emotional journey after his wife’s death and Sandy’s newfound sense of loyalty to anyone other than himself offer unexpected revelations — big and small.
The 10-episode streaming series is a departure for Lorre, who’s known for churning out hit show after hit show: “Dharma & Greg,” “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Mom,” “Young Sheldon.” It’s darker, there’s no laugh track and it takes place all over Los Angeles – Musso & Frank, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the Valley. It does however offer a few over-the-top characters such as Norman’s mess-of-a-daughter Phoebe (Lisa Edelstein) and Danny DeVito as Sandy’s urologist. There are also plenty of gags tucked into the smart writing and stellar performances that would be perfectly at home on network TV.
Lorre knows this, and wastes no time poking fun at that world when Sandy lectures his class on the seriousness of the craft; how it’s not about doing the kind of fluffy stuff that wins a People’s Choice Award (“Big Bang Theory” has won many).
Lorre takes another step into the self-deprecation zone when Sandy admits to Norm that he wants to land a sitcom like “The Big Bang Theory” because those actors make “a million bucks a week.” Sandy is disgusted. “It’s crap!,” he says. “You’re a world-famous acting coach. What’s it going to look like, you doing a network sitcom?” Oh, the wonderful irony of Douglas and Arkin delivering those lines!
“The Kominsky Method” also features Nancy Travis as Lisa, Sandy’s student and rare “age-appropriate” love interest. Sarah Baker is his daughter, Mindy. Both women challenge him to reassess what he wants from the rest of his life, and while it’s his habit to avoid any sort of self-reflection, he’s forced to comply when he’s diagnosed with prostate cancer. Not exactly the fun stuff that made “Dharma & Greg” a thing.
“The Kominsky Method” arrives amid a swell of shows featuring folks well over retirement age such as “Grace and Frankie,” “Murphy Brown,” “The Cool Kids.” It’s an unexpected result of the push for more diversity perhaps, which at its core is also a campaign to reach a wider demographic. Its themes are universal, entertaining and occasionally devastating.
Norm’s grieving process starts with anger – lashing out at everyone, including a mortuary bereavement counselor who says it may be hard to fulfill his wife’s dying request: that she be buried in a casket made out of wood from an old shipwreck.
But when he picks up the dry cleaning weeks after her passing, he finds among his button-down shirts a dress she dropped off months ago. Anger melts into despair, and he crumples into a chair, sobbing.
Clearly this isn’t Netflix’s answer to HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” though it still is a satirical take on old Jewish guys, L.A. and the industry. Lucky for legions of binge-watchers, “The Kominsky Method” follows its own winning methodology.
‘The Kominsky Method’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)