Yes, we know “The Odd Couple” is more than just a movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Mattheau. How much more is still rather surprising, I imagine, to anyone who hasn’t been a devout fan of franchise since its inception in 1965. What began as a play written by Neil Simon and starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney turned into the aforementioned film with Matthau and Lemmon, then later morphed into two ABC sitcoms in the ’70s and ’80s as well as an animated cartoon, various stage productions performed across the country — including a version with, of all things, women! — and now a new sitcom on CBS starring Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon.
The focus here will be specifically on the film to TV adaptation, as the new iteration’s creators have signified this is what they drew from for inspiration. “We’re going back to […] the brilliant original Neil Simon source material,” said executive producer Bob Daily at the Winter TCAs in January, echoing comments made by executive consultant Garry Marshall (who worked on the original TV series). Granted, the “original source material” is the play, but given the strong similarities between the stage production and the film, as well as film and TV’s closer commonalities, it seems more fitting to compare the two.
Good Call – Titles, Names (Mostly) and Setting
Neil Simon’s original version of “The Odd Couple” spawned a million imitators over the years, with just about any film about friendship drawing at least some inspiration from the Tony-award winning play and/or smash hit film. Still, in order to capitalize off its title and the built-in audience that comes with it, the new version had to lift a few aspects verbatim from its predecessors. Of the many about to be listed, the play’s basic premise is — but for one crucial missing component — carbon copied for CBS. The title and character names remain the same (except for Felix and Oscar’s ex-wives, who are no longer named Blanche and Frances), as does the setting in Oscar’s apartment.
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Bad Call – Oscar’s Bad Behavior
There’s a notable scene in the film when Oscar and Felix visit a diner for a quick meal. When the waitress comes to take their order, Oscar sweeps her off her feet, literally and in the worst way possible. In today’s day and age, Oscar groping an employee, even one he’s familiar with, casts one of our two protagonists in a sleazy light that’s more distracting than productive. We already understand why Oscar is no longer married, and don’t need any extra reasons to think him repulsive. The same can be said for the opening moments of the new series. Matthew Perry’s Oscar doesn’t grope Yvette Nicole Brown, his assistant, but he does perform his work without wearing any pants. It’s not on the same level as the film, but the joke — revealing he’s not wearing pants behind his desk — isn’t worth the shadow it casts on Oscar.
Good Call – Recycling Old Jokes
I know. This sounds like the definition of a “bad idea.” Repeating lines everyone has heard once or twice before — let alone a dozen times for veteran fans — seems like a poor choice. But there’s one aspect of the idea that makes it work: Neil Simon. The jokes he crafted for these characters stand the test of time, a fact testified to by the repeated iterations of his play over the years. People are willing to hear “It took me three hours to figure out ‘F.U.’ means Felix Unger,” again and again, including during the pilot of a new sitcom.
Bad Call – Felix’s Hypochondria and Cleaning Habits
Call it sacrilege if you must, but many of Felix’s annoying living habits just aren’t that funny anymore. In an era where the negative aspects of living with someone are exhaustively chronicled and analyzed, it would have been preferable for the writers to come up with new ways for Felix to disturb Oscar’s bachelor lifestyle — especially when Oscar only invites Felix to live with him because he supposedly hates living alone. Instead of watching Felix clear his sinuses and obsessively clean (to the point where Oscar must clarify to his friends that Felix isn’t gay), why not force Oscar to reevaluate his desire for a roommate in more unconventional ways? The messy vs. clean roommate battle is a tired one, so let’s make Felix a stealthy food thief or be incredibly protective of his personal space. Maybe he uses Oscar’s cell phone interchangeably with his own or logs him out of social media sites when stealing his computer. Some of these traits may only last an episode, but others can become extended jokes running across seasons. Either way, it’s better to illustrate new issues than old, tired ones.
Bad Call – Felix is Not Suicidal
Again, it would be easy to assume keeping a suicidal character off broadcast television is a good decision, especially given the key CBS demo of “comfort viewers.” However, turning Felix into what is essentially another divorced white male willing and eager to complain about his wife not only becomes grating for first-time viewers of “The Odd Couple,” but it also lowers the stakes considerably for the majority who’ve seen it before. Shouldn’t an employed adult be able to support himself enough to afford his own place? Shouldn’t Oscar be comfortable enough with his own living situation by now, rather than eagerly inviting a buddy to stay with him? It may be hard to laugh at suicide, but if the CBS audience can go along with a series finale where two pianos are dropped on two different people, they can surely handle this, too.
Good Call – Racial Diversity
It’s still somewhat disappointing to see another primetime comedy with two white male leads taking roles that could be portrayed by any race or gender, but we’ll give that a pass for three reasons: 1) Matthew Perry is a co-creator and huge force behind this project, so he earned the right to be in it. 2) Thomas Lennon is great, and we wish him all the best. 3) What was a “whites only” poker game/friendship circle in the film, now features Wendell F’n Pierce and Yvette Nicole Brown. They’re side characters, which isn’t ideal, but it’s certainly an improvement over what could have been seen as precedent.
Bad Call – Felix’s Relationships with Women
One of the key scenes in the pilot is cribbed directly from the original text, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Felix falls apart on his double date with Oscar, embarrassing his friend but making two new ones in the process. It’s a harmless, cute reversal that pulls its weight well (the scene is a bit long). The new series, though, is absent one detail from the film: Felix’s trip to a burlesque show. Though not quite a strip club, Felix visits a bar with a nearly-naked dancer performing right in front of his face.
Now, in the first sitcom adaptation, producers were forced by the network to throw woman after woman in front of Felix and Oscar in order to keep audiences from thinking the two leads were gay. Garry Marshall has gone on record saying he wasn’t a fan of it, and no one is disagreeing with him. However, as it stands, the CBS version of “The Odd Couple” hasn’t taken the time to develop Felix past a one-note bore. He likes to keep a proper house, and…well, that’s all we know about Felix. His trip to the burlesque show combined with his sad sack routine on a double date later on gave him dimensions he’ll need if the new Felix wants to stick around.
Bad Call – The Multi-Camera Sitcom
Though this may have been the format of the original series as well as a means to replicate the feeling of live theatre, the multi-cam setup just doesn’t work anymore. The format is too limiting and the live audience too tiresome. “The Odd Couple” needs a facelift, and the creators of this new series put themselves in a whole early with the decision to ape an outdated format. It may be the preferred production style for CBS comedies, but eventually even the Eye will have to try something new. This was the perfect opportunity, and they missed it.
A Good & Bad Call – The Casting
On paper, “The Odd Couple” has one of the best casts in all of comedic television. Matthew Perry is TV royalty as a series regular on “Friends.” Yvette Nicole Brown and Thomas Lennon are cult favorites thanks to “Community” and “Reno 911,” respectively. Wendell Pierce is every culture snob’s favorite because he’s from “The Wire.” Even Leslie Bibb should have a swath of fans thanks to appearances on “About a Boy” and “Burning Love.”
The problem? None of these fine thespians are at the top of their games. Everyone other than Perry and Lennon aren’t around enough to justify watching, and neither of the headlining stars give enough reason to consider this any more than another half-assed sitcom from a network in the business of quantity over quality (see the new “CSI” spinoff for more on that). Lennon comes the closest, as he commits fully to Felix even in the most trying of circumstances. A veteran voice and character actor, as well as the co-writer of studio money-makers from “The Pacifier” to “Night at the Museum,” Lennon also co-scribed a book titled, “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit” with “fun” crossed out. In short, he knows the kind of payday in store for him if “The Odd Couple” works, and he’s not about to let it fail for lack of trying.
Perry, on the other hand, seems adrift in a role he should be knocking out of the park. Gone is the whimsical energy and carefully choreographed timing of his work as Chandler on “Friends,” as a darker shade creeps over even his most harmless jokes. Perry has been pushing a more dramatic side of himself since leaving “Friends,” first trying it totally straight on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” before going partially back into comedy for “Mr. Sunshine” and “Go On.” Both are 30-minute “comedies,” but neither make laughs the top priority. Now that they are, Perry doesn’t seem that interested in grabbing them. That, or he’s forgotten how.
In the end, the key to “The Odd Couple” is the couple itself. Perhaps Perry and Lennon will find their spark as time goes on, but for now we can only hope whatever original material they have in store is better implemented than what was handed to them.