'Imaginary Mary': TV Review

Katie Yu/ABC
Stephen Schneider and Jenna Elfman in 'Imaginary Mary'
Not really for kids, not really for grown-ups.
4/4/2017

Have you ever wanted to watch Jenna Elfman discuss parenting insecurity with a blob of furry, talking tofu? ABC's 'Imaginary Mary' has got you covered.

In anticipation of a review that surely won't be rapturous, allow me to begin with a defense of ABC's Imaginary Mary, or at least one aspect of Imaginary Mary.

I've seen and heard a lot of people criticizing the show's title character, a computer-generated blob of hairy, talking tofu, for a heavily promoted joke about doing the Macarena.

This joke has been targeted as proof of how dated and hacky the jokes in Imaginary Mary are, or to suggest that Imaginary Mary has been on the shelf so long that its title character is actually a gabby bar of mold-encrusted hotel soap.

False!

Mary (voiced by Rachel Dratch), the unholy spawn of a marshmallow and Mike from Monsters, Inc., is the long-dormant imaginary friend of Jenna Elfman's Alice. She doesn't make jokes about the Macarena because the writers of Imaginary Mary haven't been to a bar mitzvah or wedding in 20 years and therefore don't know the names of any more current dance crazes. She makes jokes about the Macarena because she hasn't existed for several decades and therefore has no other frame of reference.

See? It's not hilarious in context, but it makes sense.

Proof of how dated and hacky Imaginary Mary is will come from actually watching Imaginary Mary, which has a sneak preview Wednesday before moving to its Tuesday home nest week. Those are the two episodes sent to critics.

As we learn early on, Alice created Mary when she was six because her parents were never there for her. In this sad loneliness, Alice dreamed up a quippy Styrofoam packing peanut who was a friend and adviser right up until the moment Alice lost her virginity. Presumably, at that point, Alice had no more need to consult a rump-shaking pulled tooth, because she had sex.

For decades, sex held her imaginary friend in unseen shackles, but then Alice, now a successful PR guru, meets Ben (Stephen Schneider) and she falls for him before being horrified to learn that he has not one, not two, but three children (Nicholas Coombe, Matreya Scarrwener and Erica Tremblay).

Sensing a moment of crisis, the sexually curious peppermint chiclet reappears to provide assistance like, "Kids like ice cream," and to make utterly incongruous Midnight Cowboy references. Unlike that Macarena joke, these absolutely go to show how dated and hacky the jokes in Imaginary Mary are. Because nothing in Alice's backstory indicates that while she and her imaginary friend were hiding from the world, they were also working their way through the films of John Schlesinger.

As created by Adam F. Goldberg, David Guarascio and Patrick Osborne, the explanation here is that Alice is so afraid she'd be as bad a parent as her parents were to her that she has to manifest a pre-Labor Day fringed throw pillow as a coping mechanism. So Mary helps Alice expand her comfortable limits so that soon she's performing hackneyed sitcom girlfriend chores like emergency babysitting duty and hearing the deep, dark insecurities that the kids aren't prepared to tell Ben.

And guess what? After brief windows of child endangerment, she's not bad at parenting! Thanks to Mary?

Well, no. Not thanks to Mary. Probably the biggest flaw of Imaginary Mary is that it could also be called Superfluous Mary. I don't find Mary spectacularly annoying, though surely many viewers will. I just found her essentially unnecessary. Her advice doesn't really help Alice all that much because Mary doesn't have especially good advice. And how could Mary have especially good advice? She's a furry rejected PokemonGo character forged at a moment in Alice's life at which Alice wouldn't have any good parenting advice to give herself.

You could take Mary out of Imaginary Mary and it would basically be The Mick, because tall blonde women with no domestic skills thrust into maternal roles were apparently in vogue last development season, only none of the three kids in Imaginary Mary are as developed as the often funny kids on The Mick. The younger daughter is obsessed with death, the middle daughter is a nerd and the son is insecure about stuff. They're not written interestingly, Ben isn't written interestingly and neither, as we've already established, is Mary.

Alice isn't interesting as a character either. She's another "Can I have it all professionally and personally?" woman and far from the most interesting version of this archetype. Despite that and despite having a co-star who looks like she's auditioning to play "Ambivalence" in an Inside Out sequel, Elfman is actually surprisingly at ease. That time working with the Looney Tunes paid off, because Elfman's interaction with an albino critter is unforced and this is the most likable she has been on the small screen in years. Elfman has had some rough failed network sitcoms, basically since Dharma & Greg, but despite the plot trappings, she seems more comfortable here than in several of them.

In my dream version of Imaginary Mary, it quickly becomes clear that Mary represents serious psychological issues that Alice is dealing with and the rest of the series is about her need to repress Mary again. Yes, that may basically be Drop Dead Fred, but I'm here for it.

I really don't know who Imaginary Mary is for, anyway. Kids aren't going to have much interest in Mary's cultural references and they probably won't be all that tolerant of my assurances that Mary's irregular kiwi-after-a-vampire-encounter character design is vastly improved from her original version. And grown-ups? Well, grown-ups are just going to want something smarter and better.

Cast: Jenna Elfman, Rachel Dratch, Stephen Schneider, Erica Tremblay, Matreya Scarrwener, Nicholas Coombe.
Creators: Adam F. Goldberg, David Guarascio & Patrick Osborne
Premieres: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT; airs regularly Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)

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