'The Kominsky Method': TV Review

Great stars help put the "Pee" in "AARP."
11/16/2018

Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin are stellar in Chuck Lorre's frequently successful Netflix attempt to blend jokes about getting old with serious reflections on aging.

In a small, but amusingly potent moment in Netflix's The Kominsky Method, Alan Arkin's Norman is watching the ending of Cocoon and he's astounded to realize that, decades after watching the movie for the first time, he's getting emotional at the film's conclusion.

"It's a whole different thing when you're in the demographic!" Norman gushes to his best friend Sandy, played by Michael Douglas. (It's a good thing Norman, played by the 84-year-old Arkin, doesn't have to confront the reality that Wilford Brimley shot Cocoon at the ripe old age of 49.)

As Netflix has certainly learned with Grace and Frankie, the allure of a pair of acting titans going head-to-head can be enough to overcome any cynical conventional wisdom about the commercial challenges of building a franchise around actors of a certain age. Actors over 70 don't face the same stigma as actresses over 70, but chances are good that a Hollywood movie teaming Arkin and Douglas would require them to rob a bank or for one of them to be facing immediately impending death. Surely there's an inevitable specter of mortality that hangs over The Kominsky Method and makes it bittersweet, yet it's at least as fixated on long-term male friendship, theories of acting and irregular urinary flow.

It puts the "Pee" in AARP!

I'm sure it's a whole different thing when you're in the demographic, but even if you're not, there are few actors you'd rather watch tackle these subjects than Douglas and Arkin.

In terms of plot, Sandy Kominsky is a Tony-winning winning actor who hasn't had a big role in years, so he makes his living teaching an acting class, which, in contrast to the one run by Gene Cousineau on Barry, may actually be helpful to the students even if, like the one run by Gene Cousineau on Barry, it's fodder for some possibly too-easy and occasionally hilarious jokes about delusional actors. None of those jokes are at the expense of new pupil Lisa (Nancy Travis), with whom Sandy begins a fling complicated by his health and her relative common sense. If Sandy hasn't been landing parts, maybe it relates to Norman, his friend and also agent, who has become increasingly fixated on his wife's (Susan Sullivan) battle with cancer.

The Kominsky Method hails from creator Chuck Lorre and will likely be seen as a wild deviation by viewers who somehow keep sleeping on the still-exceptional Mom and haven't watched the increasingly sturdy Young Sheldon and even the cripplingly flawed, but comfort zone-expanding, Netflix dud Disjointed. This eight-episode comedy takes some of what works best about Mom into a single-camera format, finding a way to laugh both at and with its main characters while still letting them retain most of their dignity. If the earliest episodes lean a bit heavily on bodily function humor, I don't think I ever felt like it was anything other than a matter-of-fact reflection on the absurdity and gravity of aging. Some of the broadness might feel a little forced and it's no surprise to see Grumpy Old Men helmer Donald Petrie behind the camera in several episodes, yet neither Douglas nor Arkin ever sells out for laughs. As the show progresses, it's the heart in their relationship and the effectively played undercurrents of drama that really shine, in the same way that Mom is usually best as a drama with bursts of multicam schtick instead of a multicam with Very Special Episode moralizing.

Arkin's performance is his best since Little Miss Sunshine and perhaps some time before that, one perfectly timed droll deadpan after another. And with wry incredulity, Douglas plays entirely different, complementary notes. Like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in Grace and Frankie, this is less an example of a show challenging its stars to go against type and more an illustration of how great both can still be when you give them good material in their respective wheelhouses. The series features a tremendous guest turn from Douglas' regular collaborator Danny DeVito, whose enthusiasm makes an otherwise familiar prostate exam sequence into something special, and a later cameo by another '70s acting icon playing himself in top form.

Should The Kominsky Method earn a second season, the easiest place for improvement is with the female characters, though not the actresses who play them. Lisa Edelstein is a hoot as Norman's estranged, substance-abusing daughter, but it frequently feels like the show is looking down on her. Travis, having a busy year with major turns on Mr. Mercedes and the returning Last Man Standing, gives Lisa a necessary backbone even if the series can't always track why she'd be feeling any affection toward Sandy. As Sandy's daughter, Sarah Baker is so good by the end of the season — she has one monologue that may be the show's highlight — and yet wildly underutilized, as too often happens with Sarah Baker.

Actually, I'm not sure that The Kominsky Method needs another season. These eight episodes reach a coda lovely enough to make me completely excuse one of the more egregious "And now I'm going to say and explain the show's title" lines of dialogue in recent memory. Mind you, narrative necessity aside, this isn't one of those one-season Netflix shows likely to damage its legacy with a return. Lorre has shown that he gets more and more confident in his experimental phases as he dedicates more time to it, and Douglas and Arkin are more than ready to continue finding the laughter and pathos in life changes that are a whole different thing when you're in the demographic. (There might even be room for Brimley, who remarkably remains six months younger than Arkin, some 33 years after Cocoon was released.)

Cast: Michael Douglas, Alan Arkin, Nancy Travis, Sarah Baker
Creator: Chuck Lorre
Premieres: Friday, Nov. 16 (Netflix)