About a Boy’s pilot played like a super-condescend version of the film version, losing entire subplots as well as the source material’s underlining sense of melancholy in the process. Now having hit its second episode, with a whole gamut of possible storylines in front of it, the show … basically trots out a pretty standard sitcom storyline.
To clarify, I don’t view this subsequent episode (entitled “About Total Exuberance”) in quite the negative light that several other critics seem to. In fact, I’d be flat-out lying if I said that this half-hour, including its woefully cornball diving board climax, didn’t put a smile on my face. Is it blatantly manipulative? Oh most definitely. But, part of the power of any show, in particularly those in the Jason Katims camp, centers on how adept the writers are at disguising the mechanics of their manipulation. And while I can definitely see the strings working in “About Total Exuberance,” I’m in no way dismissing the final product as ineffective.
The episode’s plot is set into motion when Will is stuck babysitting Marcus while Fiona goes on the job hunt. (Considering her résumé includes a section called “the nomadic years,” the interview does not seem promising.) Of course, that same day, Will learns of a massive pool party being held by Lil’ Jon that he’s been invited to. Since he’s looking after Marcus, he can’t attend. Seeing how depressed Will is at missing the event, Marcus suggests they slip out to the party, and his mother will be none the wiser. It doesn’t take a lot to convince Will, and the two soon find themselves at a party filled with all manner of alcohol and attractive girls in very small bathing suits—in other words, a place hilariously unfit for an 11-year-old.
From here, the episode falls into familiar sitcom beats. Will tries to play it cool, have fun and flirt with ladies, only to have Marcus inadvertently sabotage him. Cue Will’s burst of frustration and Marcus’ subsequent hurt feelings. Eventually, in a spur of the moment decision, Marcus decides to face his fear of heights and climbs upon the pool’s massive diving board. Seeing his young compadre paralyzed with fear on the board, Will must then climb up and, in front of the entire shocked party, apologize to Marcus for his behavior as well as encourage him to take the plunge. It’s here that both Will and Marcus—soundtracked by an uplifting Rufus Wainwright track—take a jump off the high dive. Strange use of blue screen and slow-motion aside, it’s a legitimately sweet, if unmistakably saccharine, moment.
As I’ve mentioned several times before, one of the most auspicious elements lost in About a Boy’s transition from book-to-screen-to-TV was the dark sadness that pervaded the lives of both Will and Marcus—the latter particularly after his mother’s failed suicide attempt. Certainly, unless you’re a cable show like Girls, Louie, Enlightened or, more recently, Looking, such dreariness remains unheard of in a half-hour format (very special episodes, aside). By stripping away that portion of the story, this About a Boy feels like a different beast altogether.
At this early stage, I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. On its own terms, “About Total Exuberance” works as a really nice, humorous and compact bit of sitcom writing. My main problem is that I expect so much more from a writer of Jason Katims’ stature. As such, I’m torn between judging this show on its own terms and hoping that Katims can eventually parlay the show into something approaching a Parenthood-esque dramedy. On the bright side, the most abysmal, cloying jokes in About a Boy still fare much better than some of the stronger material on a show like Dads, so that’s something to be thankful for. For now, one can only wait and see…
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.