Friends was a sitcom as reliably flavorsome and as conveniently packaged as a Kraft Single—and, therefore, destined to thrive in syndicated reruns. It ran on NBC from 1994 through 2004, and I am loath to contribute to the millions of pixels spent charting the slings and arrows suffered by its stars in the years since. Suffice it to say that none among the six of them is a genuine movie star, even Jennifer Aniston, a skilled comic actress who has racked up a billion box-office dollars. In terms of cinema and celebrity, Jen’s not a main attraction, just a Very Good Girl. Their talents are specially suited to the rhythms and intimacies of the small screen, and the chorus of Friends’ theme song doubles nicely as a motto for their particular kind of familiarity, with its elements of fond co-dependency and home-entertainment-center symbiosis: “I’ll be there for you, ‘cause you’re there for me, too.”
Matthew Perry of course played Chandler. But perhaps, given how an actor’s persona fuses with his performance in this realm of supra-genuine TV stardom, it is more precise to say that Matthew Perry was Chandler. Better still, given Friends’ canonization in syndicated reruns, allow me to venture that Perry will continue to be Chandler until America collapses, perhaps even after. (A good two-second bit in Sofia Coppola’s recent Somewhere finds its protagonist reaching a new nadir of alienation when, festering in a Milan hotel room, he clicks upon an episode of Friends dubbed into Italian, complete with an asinine Apennine laugh track.) It says something, or maybe everything, about Perry’s persona that his production company is called Anhedonia Productions (as in “the inability to gain pleasure” and the working title of Annie Hall). Chandler is the one whose neuroses manifest as cute sarcasm. Perry, as the star and co-creator of the fine new sitcom Mr. Sunshine(ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET), stretches that screen image to its local limit, doing quality existential slapstick on the midlife crisis.
Perry—like his new character, a dude named Ben Donovan—seems to know that the cuteness is weathered and that, therefore, a) it’s a damn good thing that the sarcasm is weatherproofed, and b) he’s lucky his hair looks great. Whereas Dante, in the middle of life’s journey at age 35, found himself lost in a dark wood, Ben, who turns 40 in the pilot, is lost beneath the fluorescent lights of the Sunshine Center, a second-rate sports arena he manages in San Diego. This is a venue considerably more benighted than 1300s Florence, what with its haywire hockey rink, its harebrained sports mascot losing a taco in his suit, and its being located in San Diego. Mr. Sunshine has the potential to surpass Anchorman as the great text of “America’s Finest City,” an official nickname bestowed, it would seem, by a bloc of ironists.
The timing and pace recall the work of Aaron Sorkin, which is the point. Perry, who starred in Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is helped along by two fellow Aaron Sorkin veterans: Studio 60 co-creator Thomas Schlamme (who directs the pilot) and Alison Janney (who, as the arena’s owner, plays a Lucille Bluth type, a grande dame of a screwball dame—myopic, megalomaniacal, and chemically altered). The show’s gimmicks of charm are Sorkin-inized, too, beginning with the very first scene: Within the show, applause and crowd noise rises from the 17,505 spectators cheering in the arena as, up in a skybox, Ben makes his on-screen entrance. Everyone else is cheering. Shouldn’t you be, too?
So here we have Ben suffering everyday degradations, glad-handing schmucks and groveling before rock stars, wagging a foam finger at an interoffice love interest. And here we have Perry doing amazing work with his eyes. The brows arch with impatient questions. The lashes flutter with impertinent answers. The lids blink away reminders of his own selfish boyishness. The bags wobble when the eyes go agog, communicating triple-decker incredulity at the artful idiocies the plot throws his way. Partly an overgrown jaded adolescent, partly an undernourished sophisticate, Ben is a dystopian Chandler. No one told him life was gonna be this way, but things are looking up, with a wobbling double take.