“About a Boy” was born a darkly charming Nick Hornby novel that was adapted into a darkly charming British coming-of-age film starring Hugh Grant and Toni Collette in 2002. Resuscitating the story for American television more than a decade later feels like a delayed and unnecessary reaction. This is, after all, a story that was originally set in 1993 London and named for the Nirvana song “About a Girl.” Good luck with that, NBC!
But “About a Boy,” which was brought to American television by Jason Katims (“Parenthood”), transcends Hornby’s 1993 London setting, and Hugh Grant’s over-expressive 2002 eyebrows, to become something more than an ersatz retelling. “Heartwarming” is not always an attractive adjective for a sitcom, but “About a Boy” is a thoroughly modern heartwarmer, set in present-day San Francisco. It’s sweet but not syrupy. The pilot is so beautifully written and acted that it’s difficult to offer any kind of resistance, flaws and all.
Saturday’s episode, which airs after the Olympics, introduces us to Will Freeman (David Walton), the lean, good-looking man-child who made batches of cash on a Christmas song a decade ago, and now spends idle days lollygagging about San Francisco playing foosball and chasing beautiful women.
Freeman’s fun-loving Lothario lifestyle is offensive and obnoxious to new neighbor Fiona (Minnie Driver), a New Age fussbudget who dresses her son Marcus (Benjamin Stockham) in knit sweaters depicting sunny, grassy hillsides and refuses to let him near meat and video games. All of which turns the 11-year-old into the kind of boy that makes bullies salivate.
With a mom who spends a fair amount of time meditating, complaining about the scent of grilling meat, and crying (there are no Fiona suicide attempts as there were in the film), poor Marcus needs a mentor and friend, which he conveniently finds in new next-door-neighbor Will. After Will lies to a prospective bed buddy that he has a child, he needs Marcus to fill the role of pretend son to impress the woman.
But the needs extend further than the introductory charade. Marcus gives the responsibility-shucking Will some much-needed grounding. Marcus is in desperate need of a role model. Although the friendship is formed with unconvincing speed in the first episode, the actors have a chemistry that helps fill some of the potholes in the plot.
Walton, with charisma and looks for days, does not play Will with the chilly and reserved approach that Grant took in the film. Rather, he goes in the direction of perpetual college bro, always ready for a good time and a beer. It’s his strongest, most comfortable performance since the short-lived “Bent.”
Driver walks a fine line as Fiona. Her hypersensitive neo-hippie divorcee is the stuff of bad sitcom stereotypes. But she plays the part with enough strength to make her a believable foil to Walton’s brotastic Will.
Even with a pair of talented adults, it’s sleepy-eyed Stockham who is sensational as the guileless Marcus. He is shockingly convincing, particularly in the pilot as he trots along as the boy devoid of pop-culture knowledge, hence devoid of social cues. He’s endearing in his cluelessness.
The pilot of the show is an abridged version of the novel and film. It gets the premise out there quickly and beautifully. Perhaps too beautifully. The following two episodes lack the heart of the first. But given Katims’s track record with “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” I’m willing to stick around and see how this boy grows up.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.