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Television Review

‘Mr. Sunshine’ can’t cut through the clouds

From left: Matthew Perry and Nate Torrence star in the new ABC comedy “Mr. Sunshine.’’ From left: Matthew Perry and Nate Torrence star in the new ABC comedy “Mr. Sunshine.’’ (Adam Larkey/ABC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 9, 2011

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It’s good to see Matthew Perry and his sarcastic mug again, after the failure of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’’ in 2007. Most of his “Friends’’ friends have had safe landings since their decade in the hitcom stratosphere — Courteney Cox in “Cougar Town,’’ Matt LeBlanc in the fantastic “Episodes,’’ Lisa Kudrow with “The Comeback,’’ and Jennifer Aniston in the movies and the tabloid void. But Perry has remained adrift, like Chandler Bing still fending off failure and feelings with one-liners.

So I really wish “Mr. Sunshine,’’ which premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 5 after “Modern Family,’’ were a better show. It’s not a complete disaster, thanks to supporting actress Allison Janney and a smooth single-camera tone. But it’s a quintessential “so what?’’ sitcom that practically begs you to damn it with extremely faint praise, mincing your words down to the blandest of neutrality. It forbids the reviewer the opportunity to get either staccato in outrage or gushy in adoration.

The show just has no texture. It feels very much like an executive-producer-bred project, as opposed to a hands-on writer-producer’s project. It’s as if the executive producers involved — they include Perry, Thomas Schlamme from “The West Wing’’ and “Studio 60,’’ and Jamie Tarses, former NBC and ABC executive — agreed they wanted a series with the vague concept of having Perry play a grumpy guy in a midlife crisis. And then they all stopped focusing, leaving the nitty-gritty — you know, the scripts and the characterizations — to whoever. “Mr. Sunshine’’ feels as unrealized as a blueprint.

Perry plays Ben Donovan, the manager of a San Diego arena that’s used as an ice rink and for circuses, leading to an unfunny bit about an elephant on the loose in the building. Ben is harried, brittle, and narcissistic, and he can’t remember the names of the people who work for him at the Sunshine Center, including the head of maintenance (played by recurring guest Jorge Garcia from “Lost’’).

Perry seems to be jogging through the role, as if aware that he’s basically just doing Chandler again with a few more pounds and a little more edge. He doesn’t seem charged up, as he might be if he were stretching into a different character, and as he was on “Studio 60’’ with Aaron Sorkin’s words in his mouth. Here he’s going through the motions, despite the fact that his recent interviews to promote the show have been all about how personal “Mr. Sunshine’’ is for him.

Andrea Anders, who was on both “Better Off Ted’’ and “Joey,’’ is fine as the woman who breaks Ben’s heart and triggers his crisis. When Ben learns she is cutting off their sexual relationship to be monogamous with co-worker Alonzo (James Lesure), he exclaims, “When you said you were emotionally broken, I believed you.’’ Ben now appears to be aware that he will need to change and be less self-involved or else spend the rest of his life alone, but the show doesn’t persuade us to care whether or not he succeeds.

Janney is more engaging as she trades in her ultra-responsible “West Wing’’ persona to play the batty arena owner Crystal Cohen. Dropping pills all day long, Crystal makes offensive comments about multiculturalism, creates public relations messes for the arena, and denies the existence of her childlike adult son, Roman (Nate Torrence). She’s not an especially fresh character — Megan Mullally bought out that aisle on “Will & Grace’’ — but Janney gives the politically incorrect business her own stamp. She works lines such as “I’m crazy high right now’’ with a nice twisted verve, even if, ultimately, she’s as stuck as everyone else in this soulless affair.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

MR. SUNSHINE

Starring: Matthew Perry, Allison Janney, Nate Torrence, James Lesure, Andrea Anders

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tonight, 9:30-10