'Mr. Sunshine' sends out rays of humor: 'Traffic Light' not so funny

Television Reviews

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Producers of ABC's "Mr. Sunshine" have made some small but significant changes to the show's pilot episode, premiering at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on WTAE. Such changes are not atypical. Many times a TV pilot will have scenes re-shot before it airs. The changes to "Mr. Sunshine" contribute to an overall lighter tone that was lacking in the original pilot.

What hasn't changed are the best things about the show, most notably Allison Janney ("The West Wing") as the lunatic owner of a San Diego arena and boss to arena manager Ben Donovan (Matthew Perry, "Friends"). Although Mr. Perry is the star of the show, the comedy is at its funniest whenever Ms. Janney's character is on screen. She pops pills, remains distant from her airhead son (Nate Torrance, "She's Out of My League"), reacts in terror at the sight of clowns and sings racially insensitive songs. In short, Ms. Janney's Crystal is a complete mess, and "Mr. Sunshine" is all the better for it.

What's changed from the show's original pilot is a new opening scene that better clarifies the jobs and relationships in the show and also offers a brighter, less depressing setting. The Sunshine Arena is no longer quite the sad-sack underdog it was initially portrayed as, and the offices seem more populous and less depressing. These changes are all improvements for a series that's more amusing than hilarious but appears headed in a funnier, lighter direction.

Another addition: Jorge Garcia, who played Hurley on "Lost," guest stars in the pilot as an arena maintenance employee.

But "Mr. Sunshine" -- the title is meant to be ironic as a few notes of a theme song indicate -- is really Ben's story. Mr. Perry is at the center in just about every scene, whether he's being startled by his new secretary or pining for his friends-with-benefits buddy, the arena's marketing director, Alice (Andrea Anders, "Better Off Ted"). But mostly the show is about Ben growing up. In the premiere he comes to realize he's selfish and if he doesn't reform his ways, he'll end up alone. The show doesn't play too heavily on this darker premise, and the recalculations to the pilot steer it further from darker waters.

Director Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing"), working from a script by Mr. Perry, Alex Barnow and Marc Firek, capably balances the show's deeper, informed-by-character intentions with the sillier scenes that are necessary to keep enough viewers hooked so that "Mr. Sunshine" doesn't fade from the prime-time schedule prematurely.

'Traffic Light'

Originally titled "Mixed Signals," this relationship comedy was renamed "Traffic Light" from a line of dialogue in the pilot, but the new title says nothing about the series itself. Possible better titles: "Guy Friends and the Women Who Emasculate Them" or "This Will Work Out Well" (said sarcastically).

Unfunny in the same way so many single-camera ABC comedies have been in the past, "Traffic Light" (9:30 tonight, WPGH) follows the adventures of three guy friends who often chat via three-way calling while driving in their cars. They also make up terms like "Burn Notice" (you don't talk to another guy's ex-girlfriend) and "bridge bros" (no idea what that one means).

Married Mike (David Denman, "The Office") parks a block from his house to get alone time away from his wife, Lisa (Liza Lapira). Adam (Nelson Franklin) is just moving in with his girlfriend Callie (Aya Cash) and gets upset when she calls him for no good reason, and he tells her, inadvertently (he thinks he's clicked to another phone line one of his guy friends is on), that she's annoying. Brit Ethan (Kris Marshall) is perpetually single and in storied sitcom tradition seems to have the most fun with the fewest consequences for his actions.

"Traffic Light" seems to want to be a male "Sex and the City" or "Entourage" without the Hollywood backdrop. But the scrapes these guys get into are more recognizable and more cliched than what the "Entourage" guys encounter.

The "Traffic Light" guys tell unconvincing lies and always get caught by the women in their lives. It's that kind of show, which viewers have seen before and there's no reason to see it again. (Plus, the tone and characters are not compatible with its superior lead-in, "Raising Hope.")

One thing about "Traffic Light" that makes no sense at all and feels like the last vestige of a completely different series is a scene at the end of the pilot where the guys attend the dedication of a baseball field to a dead friend who does not appear to figure in future episodes. It's an awkward downer in a show that already suffers from an awkward title and a dearth of comedy surprises.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published February 8, 2011 5:00 AM


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