The Odd Couple — starring Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon as slovenly Oscar Madison and neat-freak Felix Unger, respectively — is back for a second season. I’ve tried to avoid comparing the show to the 1970-75 version that starred Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, but this week it’s unavoidable, as Thursday night’s guest star is Garry Marshall, the producer who developed (along with Jerry Belson) that classic version. Marshall is playing Oscar’s father tonight. (Marshall has also directed a new film, Mother’s Day, that co-stars another Friends alum, Jennifer Aniston, and opens on Friday. Synergy!)
The new version of The Odd Couple was developed by executive-producer Perry as a vehicle for himself partly because, he has said in interviews, he wanted to play Oscar when most people would think he’d be a more natural Felix, whose fussy traits align with his Friends character, Chandler Bing. He wanted to stretch as an actor, right? Well, one season plus a few episode in, The Odd Couple still seems like an odd fit for Perry. Going into this project, he was coming off two failed sitcoms, Mr. Sunshine (2011), a too-wacky lark co-starring Allison Janney, and Go On (2012-2013), about a sports talk-radio host (the same job Oscar has in this Odd Couple) and widower who joins a therapy group led by Laura Benanti. (For what it’s worth, I thought Go On was slightly underrated and had potential if it had been granted more time to evolve.)
In The Odd Couple, Perry has chosen to yell most of his lines — it’s as though he thinks he’s acting in the original Broadway production of the Neil Simon play that started the Odd Couple phenomenon, and is trying to be heard in the back rows of the balcony. It’s a particularly, and peculiarly, sharp contrast to the acting style of Lennon, who is much more quietly precise in his delivery. Sure, Oscar is supposed to be a crude blatherer and Felix the more articulate aesthete, but there’s a way to portray this with more comic subtlety. In what I’ll call Odd Couple Classic, Klugman and Randall played off each other’s tones and rhythms fluidly, their styles complementing each other. Perry and Lennon are more of a jarring clash.
The new Couple has a lot of talent involved, including producer-writer Joe Keenan (Frasier) and a supporting cast that includes Wendell Pierce, so good recently as Clarence Thomas in the HBO film Confirmation, and Yvette Nicole Brown, so delightfully daffy in Community. It’s puzzling, therefore, that this show relies on jokes that are either obvious or that seem too familiar. A couple of weeks ago, Oscar told Felix, “We’re gonna watch Boobs and Dragons!” Felix: “It’s called Game of Thrones.” Not exactly original.
Similarly, the promo clip for tonight’s episode features this exchange. “I don’t get that radio show,” says Marshall’s character regarding Oscar’s job — you see, he doesn’t have satellite radio. “I don’t get it either but apparently sports is really popular,” says Felix. This is a variation on a very old joke told best, I’ve always thought, by Steve Allen in the early 1960s, who, when asked if people in Alaska got his TV show, replied, “Well, they see it, but they don’t get it.”
There are times when this Odd Couple gets it right, usually with a sight gag such as Oscar, having been told by Felix not to put his feet up on the freshly polished coffee table, carefully rests his heels on a couple of drink coasters. But the verbal humor is too often just clunky: Felix, for example, has a “second-aid kit” — it’s for when “the first one fails.” Perry and Lennon have achieved an uneasy sort of chemistry, but, wedged in a cushy comfort-zone between two hits, The Big Bang Theory and Mom, The Odd Couple seems awkward in a way that, 16 episodes in, it really shouldn’t be. It leaves you wanting to like it more than you really can.
The Odd Couple airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.