The Odd Couple

CBS’s show puts a retrograde new spin on an old story about what it means to be a straight man.

Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon in The Odd Couple.
Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon in The Odd Couple.

Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS

Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, about two co-habiting opposites, has had a long life. Fussbudget Felix Unger and the slovenly Oscar Madison first debuted in a Broadway play in 1965. The movie, starring Jack Lemmon as Felix and Walter Matthau as Oscar, arrived in 1968 and was soon followed by the 1970–75 sitcom, featuring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. On Thursday night, a new adaptation premieres on CBS, airing after the final episode of Two and a Half Men—itself a riff on The Odd Couple, spiced up with a dash of Three Men and a Baby.

CBS presumably selected The Odd Couple as its Two and a Half Men heir apparent because it seems reliable. It’s a straightforward concept with a proven track record. (Forgetting the 1980s reboot of the series, in which Oscar and Felix were played by black actors, which only lasted one season.) Get two capable actors involved—in this case, Matthew Perry as Oscar and Thomas Lennon as Felix—and, wham bam, that seems like the ideal CBS sitcom: a multicamera workhorse. But despite plundering Simon’s original language and bits and pieces from each of the previous adaptations, the new The Odd Couple has no rhythm, mostly for fear of showing two men dancing together too well.

The Odd Couple has always had a complicated relationship with both masculinity and homosexuality—subjects that are, respectively, the text and subtext of much of its humor. The central provocation of the show, right there in its title, is the unexpected closeness of two men. Oscar and Felix, heterosexual divorcés with diametrically opposed foibles and comportments, both confound and complement each other. They couldn’t make it work with their wives but, somehow, seem to be making it work with one another. As homosexuality has become less stigmatized, one might imagine that The Odd Couple would get funnier, having more material to play with and more freedom to do so. Instead, it has only gotten more retro. To judge from the new series, in the 50 years since The Odd Couple debuted, the “right way” to be a straight man has seriously narrowed.

Homosexuality is not explicitly mentioned in the movie, which nonetheless milks much of its humor from Felix’s effete mannerisms. Felix, despondent and suicidal because his wife has left him, goes to live in his pal Oscar’s palatial, filthy Upper West Side apartment, where he promptly creates order and starts cranking out home-cooked meals. In one sequence, Oscar comes home late for a dinner Felix has been slaving over, a comedic set piece that revolves around Felix playing the part of the nagging wife and Oscar the part of the irresponsible husband—even as it stays safely in bounds because the meal Felix is preparing is for the guys’ two hot-to-trot female neighbors.

But even as the movie wrings laughs from Felix’s “girly” hang-ups, the movie permits that Felix really is straight, overly concerned about the state of the meatloaf as he may be. Felix may play the part of the wife, but that’s only until later in the night, when he plays the part of the spoiler—cock-blocking Oscar like only someone with a cock can block. (Jack Lemmon made a specialty of playing unconventional heterosexuals, well-meaning and surprisingly pervy men other guys underestimated at their own expense.) The original The Odd Couple may assume heterosexuality is the default status of all men, but at least its understanding of masculinity is vast enough that Felix Unger can fit comfortably inside.

The ’70s TV version, which took place after Stonewall, mentions homosexuality in its first scene. Klugman’s Oscar comes racing home to tell Randall’s Felix that he’s scored them a date with their neighbors. Felix thinks Oscar has been overly pushy about it. “Pushy is the way it’s done!” Oscar retorts. “It’s custom all over the world. Man pursue woman, except on a few Polynesian islands and a couple bars in Greenwich Village.” If Klugman’s Oscar is overly eager to communicate to the audience that these two co-habiting bachelors are no more than that, at least Randall’s Felix—obsessed with vacuuming and placing one’s underwear on hangers—is also more sexual and smoother than in he is in film. (The show also took place after the sexual revolution.) Felix may not be as predatory as Oscar, but he’s got a way with women: He wins the neighbors over with shared interests that include laundry. By the early ’70s, being in touch with one’s feminine side might just get one laid.

In the new version of the show, Felix and Oscar are old college friends who haven’t seen much of each other lately. A newly dumped Felix shows up sobbing on Oscar’s dirty doorstep, where Oscar was just recently taping his sports radio show in his boxers and scamming on the hot downstairs neighbor (Leslie Bibb). In short order, Felix insinuates himself into Oscar’s life, cleaning and cooking and ruining Oscar’s attempts to have casual sex. Ultimately, the two realize that they need each other: Felix needs to loosen up; Oscar needs to open up.

But the new The Odd Couple doesn’t really think Felix and Oscar are equally flawed. Oscar may be filthy, but he is living the platonic ideal of bachelordom—at least as that ideal is presented in beer commercials and certain sitcoms. (Not so long ago, CBS aired How to Be a Gentleman, a show that was essentially The Odd Couple, if Felix were in boot camp to be Oscar.) Oscar lives in a nice, characterless apartment that he keeps as messy as he likes, except for the one pristine corner full of televisions. In this man cave he drinks beer, plays poker, has meaningless sex, and watches sports all day. Sure, he says he’s emotionally distraught, but did you see how many TVs he has? (As a poker buddy observes, longing in his voice: You either get the televisions, or you get the wife.)

As a counterpoint, there is Felix, who, fine, is in touch with his feelings, but is also a mess of annoying tics and quirks, unable to hit on women or get over his allergies. For poker night, he decides to cook up gazpacho and vegan chicken tenders. Who cooks fake meat for real men? “He seems kind of gay,” one of Oscar’s friends observes. “He seems extremely gay,” Oscar counters. “But he’s not.”

The new versions of Oscar and Felix feel like caricatures, whereas the old versions felt like characters (as in, “what a character!”). The new guys are phonies, a checklist of qualities instead of the grab bag of inconsistencies that make fictional beings feel real. Matthau’s Oscar may be a pig, but even he prepares sandwiches for his friends from time to time. In both the film and the earlier show, Felix wanted everyone to use a coaster, but he had friends. All of Oscar’s poker buddies were his pals too. He may have been particular, but he was also one of the guys—picking up after himself didn’t get him kicked out of that club. Not so in the new version of the show, in which Oscar’s poker buddies (Dave Foley and Wendell Pierce) view Felix with pure skepticism—as if with his coffee-drinking, home-cooking fastidiousness, he’s a whole other species of man. (One wonders what they might have made of Chandler Bing.)

At one point in the movie version of The Odd Couple, Matthau’s Oscar gives Felix a back rub, to ease his spasming neck. It is entirely without innuendo, one guy helping out his high-strung pal however he can. In the new TV show, the most memorable physical contact between the leads arrives at the very end. Felix is doing his morning yoga, wearing spandex and doing a headstand, when Oscar, on his way out the door, sets his coffee cup down on Felix’s junk. Better to scald it than give anyone any ideas.