To boil this whole criticism business down to basics, we could say that network sitcoms are generally either good or bad, and sometimes mixed. But CBS’s remake of “The Odd Couple” with Matthew Perry suggests an additional category: sad.
The new “Odd Couple” is sad because it speaks so directly to the general lack of imagination in network comedy. There have already been an uncountable number of sitcoms built on the odd-couple trope, where two extremely unalike people are forced together for lots of predictable jokes. CBS loves the premise: “2 Broke Girls” is an example, and so is “Two and a Half Men,” which ends its run on Thursday. We really don’t need another show about a Tidy Tom vs. a Messy Matty — even if this one is based on the granddaddy of them all. The original 1970-75 “Odd Couple” was the TV spinoff of Neil Simon’s 1965 play and 1968 movie.
The new “Odd Couple,” which premieres Thursday night at 8:30, is sad because it is so dully written. The makers take the name of a classic series — and even bring on original “Odd Couple” producer Garry Marshall as a consultant — in order to cash in on the built-in market recognition. They use a new arrangement of the original show’s famous theme song. But then they don’t try to live up to the name, dropping in remarkably predictable and dated jokes. Many of those jokes, including one about a bookie, could have been in the original. Perry’s Oscar is a garbage dump and Thomas Lennon’s Felix is fussy, and every zinger — and the script is a string of zingers — is based on that.
And speaking of dated, and sadness: Maybe back in the 1960s and ’70s, the idea of two divorced men living together — one with more traditionally feminine qualities — had some cultural currency. But, left unchanged, the premise has an outmoded feel to it, as if the new Oscar and Felix live in a world where the old Oscar and Felix never existed. Metrosexuality, Details magazine, and “Mr. Mom” never existed, either: Characters on the new “Odd Couple” think Felix must be gay because he’s a clean freak, he cooks, and he’s a vegan. “He seems a little gay,” says Oscar’s buddy, played by Dave Foley. “He seems incredibly gay, but he’s not,” Oscar answers.
The only clever joke in the premiere is actually from the original — a bit regarding Felix’s initials, which he puts on little reminders to Oscar. “We’re out of Corn Flakes. F.U.”
“The Odd Couple” is sad because it represents the nadir of Perry’s efforts to find a home on series TV after the massive success of “Friends.” He was top-notch in Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” but the story failed to catch on. “Mr. Sunshine” was soulless, and “Go On” had an interesting core theme, grieving for a spouse, but it was a weak copy of “Community”; both were short-lived. Now, it seems, Perry is giving up any pretense of trying, simply floating by on one of the most iconic characters in TV history. He’s a good actor; his work in “Studio 60” and “The Good Wife” is strong. But “The Odd Couple” will only require him to drop one-liners and pretend to look sloppy.
As Felix, Lennon is fine, too, given the limitations of the script. He makes sinus noises like Tony Randall before him, but he’s more physically expressive than Randall, running in and out of the kitchen with his plastic gloves on and doing yoga in the living room. I don’t want to call it a karaoke performance, because Lennon — who is best known from “Reno 911!” — is as original as he can be given the fact that Felix is so narrowly defined. Let’s just say it’s a good karaoke performance, and that he and Perry have the beginnings of comic chemistry as they bat the punch lines back and forth. They’d make a decent vaudeville team.