About a Boy: TV Review

Jordin Althaus/NBC
If you haven't seen the movie or read the book, this show focuses on how one good-natured, naive kid can turn a self-centered adult into a better person. But don't worry, there are plenty of jokes. 

NBC tries for mainstream family comedy by adapting the book — and movie — into a TV series. When it backs off the sugar and leavens it with sarcasm, the show works.

It was kind of a no-brainer to turn the film About a Boy, based on the novel by Nick Hornby (later turned into a movie as well, of course), into a television series. It seems easy to extend the warmness of a precocious kid bringing out the more mature side of a self-centered adult man. Add the hot single mom and you’ve got that network television vehicle for repeating variations on the same story from week to week.

NBC’s latest attempt to reach a mainstream audience with a family comedy certainly has a strong pedigree and a well-crafted cast. Brought to television by Jason Katims (Parenthood, Friday Night Lights), with the pilot directed by Jon Favreau, About a Boy stars David Walton (Bent, The Loop, New Girl) as Will, the aforementioned self-indulgent, self-centered slacker who lives a life of leisure because he wrote a very successful song and is living off the royalties. Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting, The Riches), plays Fiona, the supremely over-protective helicopter mom to her young son, Marcus (Benjamin Stockham). They move in next to Will, and their clashing lifestyles (Fiona is vegan and doesn’t want Marcus to have sugar or gluten or watch television or partake in many of the other things that young kids crave) collide. Will, a playboy and seeker of joy, couldn’t be any further from mostly uptight Fiona. But, as most everybody knows from either the book, the film or just the expected plot trajectory, Will takes to Marcus — mostly because he feels sorry for the kid, wants to protect him from himself and have some fun in life and also to keep him from embarrassing himself, which touch-feely Marcus is wont to do.

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Extending the concept a bit, Will’s best friend, Andy (the wonderful Al Madrigal), is married and has three kids — another reminder that everybody is growing up and moving on with their lives except Will.

About a Boy is set in San Francisco but clearly not shot there — all of the attempts to make it look like San Francisco are hokey. Andy is supposed to live in the East Bay, which works as a concept since so many single people who get married and have kids end up fleeing San Francisco.

About a Boy is at its best when Walton, who’s been funny in everything he’s been in, is allowed to riff with Driver, Madrigal or, in a snarky but protective way, Stockham. Having seen the first three episodes — the series gets a sneak peek on Saturday of all nights, right after the Olympics — it’s clear that the ingredients are all there for a successful comedy about the complications of adulthood: marriage, divorce, kids and parenting. When the writers nail the truisms — Madrigal’s character says he hasn’t seen a movie since 2008, and when Andy and his wife, Laurie (Annie Mumolo), get a couple of free hours to ostensibly have sex, they choose instead to catch up on Homeland — the series really clicks.

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And there are a lot of those good moments, particularly in the first and third episodes. Where About a Boy suffers is when the storytelling gets a little too saccharine in the Will-Marcus friendship. The second episode goes particularly overboard with this and not only cuts into the believability but loses all balance with the sarcasm that makes the show work. Having Will always be the hero and do the right thing for Marcus’ sake, even if it means losing yet another potential hook-up with yet another beautiful woman, makes him too saintly and bogs down the series in feel-good, heart-string-pulling goo.

About a Boy could also use more of Driver — the worry is that the writers are making her too one-dimensional in her over-protectiveness and earthy-crunchiness.

However, if About a Boy can find the right balance of sentimentality and snark, it could really pay off for NBC.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine