9:00am PT by Danielle Turchiano
'About a Boy' Stars Talk Shifting Dynamics, Appeal of Single-Camera
NBC made its name in comedy in the 1990s with a solid block of multicamera sitcoms, and now, almost two decades later and under a new regime, the network is hoping to find success in the same format again, bumping single-cam entries About a Boy — its lone returning freshman comedy from last season — and rookie Marry Me from the schedule. In their place, NBC is launching a new multicam block that includes last summer's Undateable and rookie One Big Happy. That leaves Jason Katims' About a Boy on the shelf, come March 17.
"About a Boy is not over yet,” NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt told reporters in January when asked about the future of the David Walton-Minnie Driver starrer. “We love working with Jason; he’s the gold standard for character and emotion, funny and heart-warming."
About a Boy certainly embodies all of that, and now that it is one of the last single-camera ones standing, it may just be even more special. But the show’s tonal balance sometimes leans more toward the heart-warming emotion with humor just sprinkled in than some audiences expect from a half-hour episode — especially one that has been coming out of the much broader single-camera lead-in, Casey Wilson vehicle Marry Me.
"One of the elements of being a network with so few comedies is you can change your identity very quickly [but] I feel like our show, as far as quality and storytelling and humor, has gotten better than the first season," Walton says of his series, which with Parks and Recreation, were the only two comedies to come back this season at NBC. "I do think it’s an advantage [that we’re rare in our single-camera nature right now]. We are a funny show, but Jason’s quest has always been to make people laugh but also to make people feel things and really connect on a deeper level with what’s going on. And I think we do that. Part of the reason I became an actor was I like making people feel strong emotions, and laughter is one of them, but single camera allows us to kind of dig a little deeper, and above being funny, be much more about telling a truthful, emotional story."
Co-star Annie Mumolo, meanwhile, stressed that the series is unique in its approach to mixing heart — like that of Katims' Parenthood — with humor.
“One of my favorite things about the show is that it’s not just looking for a punch line [in every] line of dialogue," Mumolo says. "It allows itself to have heart and to spend time on those moments — to allow those moments room to breathe. And then the comedy still gets to land, but you get to have moments with heart. Jason is pretty consistent with that, so that’s one of the things I feel is unique about the show. I enjoy being able to have real moments happen between the characters."
While the tone won’t be completely changing, the actors did acknowledge a slight shift from new pairings and relationship dynamics of their characters. “Right now we’re actually in a stretch that there’s always a sweetness to, but we’re going for bigger, broader funny stuff in these coming episodes,” Walton explained.
"The first season [Will] learned a lot, and then we made an effort to regress Will back to that Will 1.0, which is fun to play, and I think probably if I had to pick one thing that he’d learned the most, it’s that as much as he’s tried to remain rooted in his past and who he was, this family has changed him," Walton says. "He’s realized a deep relationship, while a huge pain the ass at times, is very rewarding and ultimately makes life more meaningful."
The show started out centered on the Will (Walton)/Marcus (Benjamin Stockham) relationship, as each had a lot to learn from the other, with the conflict of Marcus’ mother Fiona (Driver) and her specific beliefs about child-rearing getting in the way. The dynamic between Fiona and Will was unlike any other on network television, as it never devolved into will they or won’t they territory but rather allowed them to grow individually because of the challenges they platonically offered each other.
“[Fiona has real] moments of real co-parenting with Will — this guy who initially she [saw] as this kind of buffoon who doesn’t want to do anything not for himself, selfish," Driver says. "I think the moments they share relying on each other — and there’s a couple moments coming up where Fiona really leans on Will — are great. He’s opened up her worldview. They know each other so well, and they know the stuff that really pisses them off about each other, but they still maintain; it’s never enough to kill off how much they feel for each other. I am rooting for their relationship — for them to figure it out."
While the Will and Fiona relationship is still a key dynamic for the show — culminating in a penultimate episode of the season that Walton says will “shine a magnifying glass” on both it and just how much Will has changed because of it — the series cut away from that arc to illustrate how special their relationship is. Bringing on Chris Diamantopoulos as Marcus’ teacher and love interest for Fiona shook things up further, as he was fresh energy for a couple of characters very set in their ways.
“You’ve got to have conflict to make relationships interesting on television [and] having another guy around is the other side of when Will had a relationship with Dr. Sam last season [and] it adds in a whole different dimension, and it’s a great opportunity for more humor and continued exploration of Fiona as a character. I think it only ever adds an expanse of the world,” Driver says.
“I’m excited for the audience to see a little bit more of Marcus kind of standing up to Fiona right now," young Stockham says. "I think this is a new side of Marcus that people got a taste of in the last episode. I think people will either really like it or be like, ‘That’s not Marcus; stop that!’ But I’m excited for people to see it because it’s something new.”
The Fiona/Mr. Chris relationship and storyline sectioned itself off from the group in many ways because it was exploring a new romance, just as Will and Andy (Al Madrigal) began to pair up more often when it came to Will trying to get his music career back on track.
“Andy does not have anything else; it's not like he has a circle of friends; Andy's friend is Will, and so yeah, anything he's down for, needs help with [Andy's] there,” Madrigal said. “I get to play this exaggerated version of myself [which] has given me an opportunity as an actor to stretch [but] it’s not over the top jokey to the point where people are having this witty banter that just doesn't exist in real life. And the heart that is there is amazing and to marry the two is very difficult. I mean, to really do have some very emotional, heartfelt moments in a comedy like that, that's sincere and believable, it's pretty unique."
The Will-Andy scenes also allows About a Boy to explore another dynamic among its relatively small key cast. "We’re unique as a show in that there’s few characters, and usually there’s an A story and a B story, but a lot of shows have these large ensembles where you’re going in and out of a lot of different stories, but we’ve kept it pretty tight throughout our series," Walton says.
As for what to expect from the remainder of season two, the cast said more ensemble scenes and a new addition as Laurie (Mumolo) gives birth. Also look for a key “baby moon” episode in which a road trip to Vegas goes awry, and an emotionally resonating final two installments of the season that drive home the show’s central themes.
“There are so many different personalities at play, and it’s just really funny when we read scripts at the table read and we can’t wait to shoot it because we can’t wait to see how this is going to [work]. Like, we’re all going to be shoved in a car together [in an upcoming episode]; there’s some stuff in Vegas where we’re all stuck in the car together and literally everybody’s stories are all coming to a head in the car together,” Mumolo said.
Added Walton: “We see [Will] constantly sacrificing his own wants and needs for that family, and it tells you something about how [he] really feels. Actions speak louder than words. You can still stay very much a kid at heart and be a responsible adult, and in playing Will, it’s almost inspirational because he makes mistakes, and he screws up, but ultimately if your heart is in the right place, and you have that joy for living, then that child-like enthusiasm for things — there’s no reason that has to stop to be a responsible adult. You can have both."
While that is certainly one message the show drives home, another, which Driver pointed to as a great lesson she has taken away from the experience thus far and which is exemplified when discussing both the content and the format of About A Boy, is “there is more than one way to achieve the same end."
“I think very much the whole notion of not being so rigid is important — in ideas of how family has to look, or that love is more unorthodox than it should be … I think the idea that people can only experience proper comedy through multicam is erroneous. There is so much to be gotten out of these hybrid comedy/drama shows that Jason Katims is so brilliant at,” Driver said. “You’ve got to take 'should' out of it and just allow things to be slightly less unconventional."
About a Boy airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.