Let’s be frank. Sitcoms are generally stories about stupid people. Even if they’re not explicitly about stupid people, however, then they’re certainly about the stupid things people do. After all, what is comedy if not laughing at the ill-conceived decisions people make?
With each new episode, it feels as though About a Boy is struggling against the format’s tendency to contort the main characters into cartoonish, bumbling archetypes who say witty lines while engaging in outrageous, completely irrational behavior for the sake of yucks. Perhaps the biggest example in “About a Girl” is Leslie Bibb’s Dakota. As introduced in the pilot, Dakota was a single mother who, despite a somewhat frustrated sex life that led her gullibly into Will’s arms, appeared to have some measure of common sense. This all disappears the moment she finds herself drawn again into Will’s orbit.
Let’s pretend for a moment that someone like Will had actually presented their next door neighbor’s child as not only their son but also a survivor of leukemia. What’s more, they did it just to get in a few hookups. Any self-respecting victim would never be caught dead with that person again, even if the hypothetical Will character later helped that same child become the highlight of a talent show. Of course, I know most men don’t look like David Walton, but Dakota’s continued attraction to Will strains believability to the point where it now feels like some kind of major cosmic joke. Add in the fact that their eventual hookup scene once again has her reiterating her motherly duties while frantically stripping her clothes off—basically a staler version of a similar scene from the pilot—and the underdeveloped characterization becomes all the more apparent. Like several members of the About a Boy cast, she’s ceased to be a character and merely become a vehicle for broad comedy.
But back to the episode…
Marcus, it appears, is in love with Hannah, his lab partner and the most popular girl in school. To his dismay, he learns that Hannah will soon be celebrating her birthday party, but he has not been invited. Ever the beacon of poor advice, Will advises him to stop acting like his sensitive self and try to be more aloof and give himself a “bad boy” edge. Somewhat predictably, Marcus takes this advice to its extreme. In class, he refuses to acknowledge Hannah or help her properly mix the chemicals because “he’s a bad boy.” Hannah’s ignorance of the subject eventually results in a minor blow-up that sends both children to the principal’s office. Despite the mess up, Fiona speaks with Hannah’s mother and explains that Marcus is having trouble fitting in and that inviting him to her daughter’s birthday party would be good for him. When Will finds out about this, he quickly realizes that this was little more than a “pity invite” and that Marcus will be mercilessly picked on as the loner of the party.
After first crashing the birthday and trying to get Marcus out, Will, Fiona and Dakota (who has tagged along because, well, I don’t know) then decide to convince Hannah to dance with Marcus, thereby granting him a decent bump in coolness. Shenanigans ensue, but ultimately Marcus gets his dance and even proves himself a capable waltzer.
At this point in its run, About a Boy looks to have a problem with its titular boy. Over the past four episodes, Marcus’ personality, while always slightly off-kilter, has varied drastically in terms of his own self-awareness. In the pilot, he was a legitimately strange, sheltered child who just started to discover a world outside his insular existence. In episodes two and three, he became much more of a traditionally precocious sitcom child who occasionally even served as Will’s banter buddy. Here, Marcus takes a massive step back. He’s now unable to understand even the most visibly apparent bits of sarcasm. I’m sure growing up with a mother like Fiona and a lack of TV would make it difficult for someone to pick up on such things, but when Marcus first tries to ask Hannah to dance with him and she says she’ll do it “much much later” before collapsing into a fit of giggles, it’s just baffling that he’s not picking up on her rejection. To be clear, actor Benjamin Stockham looks to be always hitting the mark based on the material he’s given, but I wish the writers would tie down his character sooner rather than later.
Then there’s the matter of the show’s adults. I’ve already mentioned my problems with Dakota, but the others don’t fare much better either. What’s particularly disconcerting is how Fiona and Dakota basically jump Hannah at her party and beg her to dance with Marcus. Considering the show’s tone is a bit more grounded than, say, a Happy Endings or 30 Rock, such a move comes across as something only slighter left of criminal and certainly uncomfortably inappropriate.
Once again, About a Boy proves itself to be in a period of quality flux. No doubt, there’s a palpable sense of charm that runs through each installment, which makes the numerous plot and character contrivances all the more jarring. While I stand by my enjoyment of the pilot, even with its occasional missteps, these past few episodes have certainly presented a case of diminishing returns. Now I’m becoming somewhat concerned about the show’s future. The pairing of Jason Katims and Nick Hornby—two men who have managed in their respective careers to beautifully articulate both the drama and comedy inherent in human interplay—would appear to be a match made in heaven on paper. At this point, however, the by-product is gently floating in some sort of Purgatory space.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.