CBS has done one smart thing in creating the new TV adaptation of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” premiering Thursday. Acknowledging the probability that no one who saw it could ever forget the 1970s adaptation developed by Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall, the creators of the new show pay homage to its forebear, not only by using a new arrangement of Neal Hefti’s unforgettable score, but also in how Thomas Lennon plays the odder of the titular couple, Felix Unger.
Tony Randall never tried to imitate Jack Lemmon, who played Felix in the film version, but Lennon at times seems just one sinus-clearing honk away from impersonating Randall as the neurotic neatnik who shows up at the door of the unrepentant slob Oscar Madison (Matthew Perry), after his wife throws him out.
It’s a bold and almost classy move on the part of the show’s developers, Danny Jacobson and Perry. Now all they have to do is make it funnier.
The pilot episode finds Felix showing up just as the sports radio host is putting the moves on an attractive model named Casey (Leslie Bibb) who lives in his New York building. So much for Oscar’s romantic plans for the evening.
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In spite of their worlds-apart differences, Oscar and Felix have been friends since college, and as selfish and indifferent to others as Oscar seems to be, he has enough of a kind heart to offer Felix a place to crash. He comes to regret it, over and over again, which is the ripe premise of the sitcom. By the next morning, Felix has turned the high-rise landfill into a model apartment, reorganizing the kitchen, cleaning everything in sight, gathering all the dirty clothes and garbage from the living room and probably disposing of both in the building’s trash chute.
Oscar invites some friends over to watch sports (Dave Foley and Wendell Pierce), and Felix makes his version of “snacks” – meatless chicken wings and gazpacho.
Oscar and Casey plan a double date, setting Felix up with Casey’s emotionally needy sister, Emily (Lindsay Sloane), and of course, Felix screws things up again for Oscar but finds his neurosis-mate in Emily. The two women are updated versions of the Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily (names courtesy of Oscar Wilde).
These plot elements are carefully repurposed from Simon’s 1965 hit play, and were carried through both the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau film and the first TV adaptation.
What’s kind of cool is that the new show is able to do something that would have been unseemly in 1970: It addresses the issue of how much Felix resembles a classic, stereotypical gay man from old film and TV – a Franklin Pangborn type, if you know your old movies. In 2015, it can be the subject of comic dialogue and convincingly dismissed.
Perry doesn’t try to do a Jack Klugman imitation, and that’s also smart. A revamp of the show would be dismissed as TV grave-robbing if both leads seemed to be too consciously channeling Klugman and Randall. The result of this careful tightrope walk is that by the end of the pilot episode, Perry and Lennon have begun to develop their own chemistry.
One episode just isn’t enough to judge how all of this will pan out. There are a few funny bits, most of which involve Lennon. That’s not necessarily to say that Perry falls short. In fact, “The Odd Couple” is a very close relative of another Simon hit, “The Sunshine Boys,” and both shows replicate the old vaudeville concept of the straight man and the top banana.
Still, even in the first episode, it’s clear that better writing – make that funnier writing– is needed if whatever nascent chemistry Perry and Lennon have is going to amount to much.
One small but noteworthy adjustment in the setting: Instead of working at an actual newspaper, whose existence you might have to explain to younger viewers, Oscar works at home as a sports radio host, with his assistant (Yvette Nicole Brown) apparently willing to put up with Oscar’s sloppy personal habits.
The show’s creators benefited from having Marshall on hand as a consulting producer. That’s the kind of thing the TV industry does for window dressing and PR purposes, but in this case, Perry and Jacobson have TV genius in the house, and they’d be fools not to make use of him.