Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Matthew Perry And Allison Janney Prove (Briefly) They Have Talent Untapped In Mr. Sunshine!

The Good: Very funny, Interesting characters, Generally amazing acting
The Bad: SHORT! Lack of DVD bonus features/chapters
The Basics: Mr. Sunshine was a thirteen episode television series that gave Matthew Perry and Allison Janney the chance to show off their talents after Friends and The West Wing, respectively, which unfortunately got cancelled long before its time!

After a long-running series, it is hard for actors and actresses to find a role that can match their iconic role that made them a household name. Few casts have had trouble finding consistent work like the cast of Friends (reviewed here!) and The West Wing (reviewed here!). Of the six main cast members of Friends, Matthew Perry seems to have tried the most new network television projects and failed. While I might be one of the few people who loved Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (reviewed here!) with Matthew Perry (and, ironically, The West Wing-alum Bradley Whitford), Perry’s terrible luck made me fall in love with a second prematurely cancelled television series, Mr. Sunshine.

The real story with Mr. Sunshine is Allison Janney. Janney followed Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe back to regular series roles after the end of her seven years on The West Wing. While some of the other members of the cast returned to doing guest roles or films, Janney tried to stretch her performing wings on Mr. Sunshine and she proved to be exceptionally versatile in the role of the crazy, addled stadium owner, Crystal Cohen.

Ben Donnovan is the manager of the Sunshine Center, a 17,000 person stadium in San Diego. He is shocked one day when the stadium’s owner, Crystal, brings her adult son to him and orders him to give him a job. Roman is good at absolutely nothing and Ben struggles to find a place for Roman. At the same time, his girlfriend, the marketing manager Alice, decides that she is going to commit to Alonzo (a former NBA star who now works at the Sunshine Center), breaking things off with Ben. While Ben avoids his own assistant, the legitimately crazy Heather (who once set a man on fire), he takes pity on Roman and lets the adult child move in with him.

As the season progresses, Ben slowly becomes less self-centered. He handholds Crystal when she freaks out on the anniversary of the day she lost her true love (which inspires a guest appearance by James Taylor) and he has to learn the name of all of the people who work under him at the Sunshine Center when the air conditioning kicks out. Ben has to put up with a spoiled child rock star and has an uncomfortable date with Heather’s sister and manages to bag a beautiful woman who is reminiscent of him at the beginning of the season (a woman who is just looking for a completely casual relationship). While Ben evolves, it begins to make him realize all he lost with Alice and the changes in his life actually lead Alice to notice him again.

Mr. Sunshine derives most of its humor from phenomenally funny lines, as opposed to the situations. The plots to the episodes are often very tame – Ben gets waylaid by Crystal, so Roman has to entertain a lingerie football player Ben hooks up with whenever she is in town or Alice and Alonzo come to believe Crystal is a racist and try to change her perceptions on black people – but it is the lines that are audacious and laugh-out-loud funny. Matthew Perry delivers his lines with an anhedonic quality that is distinct and different from any other character I’ve seen him play. Allison Janney is absolutely loopy as Crystal Cohen and she delivers her lines with an earnestness that is hilarious (when she sings the song about all the different ethnicities of children with wide, eager eyes, it is impossible not to smile).

The thirteen episodes of Mr. Sunshine create a core of six memorable characters. In the sole season of Mr. Sunshine, the characters are:

Ben Donovan – Boyish and happy working for the Sunshine Center, he is entirely self-absorbed. He, for example, only refers to his past relationship with Alice as “the time we were sleeping together.” He lets Roman move in with him and he often has to remind Crystal of her son’s existence. He negotiates with multiple young women for sex through the course of the season and has to keep a teen heartthrob happy so he will actually perform at the Sunshine Center. He stops going only for casual sex and works to develop real relationships, which makes him look back in Alice’s direction,

Alice – A cheerful marketing manager, she decides she wants to commit to Alonzo. She becomes frustrated when Alonzo is so busy doing good things that she will never be first in his mind. She tries to one-up her high school rival when she visits the Sunshine Center and she briefly mentors under Crystal to learn how to be confident,

Alonzo – A former NBA player who failed to make a key basket in a game years prior, he now works community outreach at the Sunshine Center. He is perpetually happy and loves being in a relationship with Alice. Technically still married, he does things like give blood, organize charity events and coaches a team of at-risk young women (not quite realizing how bad “Alonzo’s Ladies” sounds!),

Roman – Something of an idiot, he is eager to try new things. He falls for Ben’s psychotic assistant, hard. He gets jealous when Heather and Ben spend time together, but covers for Ben when Ben needs favors. He works as Alice’s assistant, which leads Alice to stop trusting him because of the way he blabs to Ben,

Heather – One of Alonzo’s outreach projects, she came to work at the Sunshine Center on an internship. Having once set a man on fire, she keeps Ben continually on-edge. She is eager to please and falls for Roman’s earnestness,

and Crystal Cohen – The drug-addled owner of the Sunshine Center, she delegates to Ben on most things. When her adult son, Roman, pops back into her life, she has no idea how to be a mother. She resents the Smurfs, is thrilled by mysterious men and admits to being married six times, only five of which were consummated. She has an oddly close relationship with one of the cleaning women at the Sunshine Center and is devastated when Nadia dies abruptly. She briefly mentors Alice, but discovers Alice does not have her tolerance for drugs that she does.

Mr. Sunshine has an amazing cast led by Matthew Perry and Allison Janney. Andrea Anders makes a credible romantic interest for both Matthew Perry’s Ben and James Lesure’s Alonzo, though she often plays Alice like she played her character from Better Off Ted (season 1 is reviewed here!). Nate Torrence plays Roman with a familiar goofiness, but he brings an endearing quality to the role that sparks well with Portia Doubleday (who plays the wide-eyed crazy Heather).

Ultimately, though, Mr. Sunshine is thirteen delightful episodes that replay, like most outrageous comedies with diminishing humor. The DVD set is one of SONY’s “burn on demand” discs, so there are absolutely no frills (not even episode menus!) on the two-disc DVD set. Given how fast Mr. Sunshine was cancelled by ABC, it is unlikely that a better version of the show will ever make it to DVD. As a result, I make a strong recommendation for getting the set now; it’s worth it, even if it left Matthew Perry and Allison Janney looking for work and the show’s five fans pining for more episodes.

For other television series' that made their debut on ABC, please check out my reviews of:
”Turn, Turn, Turn” - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Happy Endings - Season 1
V - Season 2
Pushing Daisies - Season 1
Boston Legal
The Job
Once & Again - Season 2
Once & Again - Season 1
Sports Night
Spin City - Season 1
NYPD Blue - Season 4
Twin Peaks
V - The Complete Series
Battlestar Galactica - The Complete Epic Series


For other television and movie reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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