One of the nicer surprises of the 2013-14 season -- for me, anyway -- is the growing appeal of CBS’ “The Crazy Ones,” the show that brought Robin Williams back to series television after a break spanning thirty years. I wasn’t very impressed with the pilot for this show, primarily because I came to laugh and didn’t. Everything about it seemed strained, from Williams’ efforts to moderate the manic energy that fuels so much of his humor to an extended sequence with “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson set in a McDonald’s that was neither funny nor dramatic nor touching.
Subsequent episodes did little to change my first impression of the show. The only thing that intrigued me was the essential appeal of Williams and the actors surrounding him: Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Wolk, Hamish Linklater and Amanda Setton. I didn’t care for their characters -- especially Gellar’s Sydney Roberts, the daughter and business partner of Williams’ advertising legend Simon Roberts -- but I enjoyed watching these actors work together -- especially Wolk and Linklater -- and that was enough to keep me around.
I was also interested in the way the show included major consumer-driven companies in its narrative, whether directly in story lines (as with McDonald’s in the pilot) or indirectly in dialogue. Everyone involved with “The Crazy Ones” made clear at the start that this element of the show is not cleverly disguised product placement. It is simply a means to enhanced realism.
I was also willing to hang on because “The Crazy Ones” represented a departure from the norm for executive producers David E. Kelley and Bill
D’Elia, two men known for their distinctive dramas and two of the boldest people to have worked in television during the last thirty years. Like Steven Bochco, Kelley is strangely somewhat below
the radar of the young bloggers and tweeters who are suddenly influencing so much of what succeeds on television. I think they think he is too “old school” to be cool, although nothing
could be farther from the truth.
I will forever defend Kelley and D’Elia’s ABC series “Boston Legal” as one of the most entertaining and insightful hour dramas of the last decade (when the contemporary hour drama format came into its own) and I still marvel at NBC’s decision two years ago to cancel their legal drama “Harry’s Law,” which at the time was the network’s highest-rated scripted series, but was put to death because too much of its audience was considered “too old.” One would think the business of broadcast television has moved beyond such limited thinking, especially at a time when broadcasters (and their basic cable competitors) often have to move mountains just to get anyone to pay attention to what they are doing. And besides, I thought 50 was supposed to be the new 30 and 60 the new 40.
NBC stated at the time that it “couldn’t sell” “Harry’s Law,” which suggests that the advertising business -- itself a hopelessly complicated and disturbing jangle these days -- has something to do with killing Kelley and D’Elia’s last effort. That makes their decision to take on that very business in “The Crazy Ones” even more intriguing. Watching the show I often feel like I’m looking into the seventh circle of hell, a business filled with neurotic and/or self-impressed people trying to look current, talk trendy and one up each other even though most of them don’t have an original thought in their heads. This could be an exaggerated perspective -- I don’t have the same responses to the people I see in AMC’s great reality series “The Pitch,” in which workers at two agencies feverishly compete to win important accounts and clearly wear themselves down in the process.
One should never compare the strengths or weaknesses of scripted and unscripted fare. But several weeks into the season, “The Crazy Ones” is suddenly starting to feel as human as “The Pitch,” which may be the reason why it is suddenly a must-see show for me. Williams has hit his stride, expertly controlling his hyper style of comedy and coming off as much more fun to watch in the process. Conversely, Gellar has loosened up a bit, letting the characters on the show and viewers at home see a more vulnerable side of Sydney, a young woman not known for her warmth or for letting down her guard. It seemed to me that Gellar didn’t know how to play this particular game at first. I now think this may be her most challenging role to date, and she’s nailing it.
The best thing about “The Crazy Ones” is that it has turned into a television series unlike any other -- just like certain other of Kelley’s shows, especially “Picket Fences,” “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal.” It looks and feels like one of Kelley’s dramas, but it is very much a feel-good comedy -- one increasingly filled with so much heart that you can’t help but give in to it. Happily, it never feels like it's playing to a fickle young audience that it can’t hope to reach. Everything about it is too smart for that.