It's hard to fathom now, seeing the star he's become, but there was a time when Matthew Perry was often recognized as one of those dependable performers who deserved a shot at a leading role in a series, but on those occasions that he was given a chance to carry that mantle, the show didn't succeed.
Then he was cast as Chandler Bing on the ratings juggernaut that was NBC's "Friends." It was admittedly a great role for Perry, an actor who had long been praised for his consistently likable on-screen presence and sharp comedic timing. Few performers are as skilled as Perry at delivering smart-aleck punchlines without sooner or later making you want to punch them.
During and after the run of that series, he went on to try his hand in other projects, including movies such as "The Whole Nine Yards" and "Fools Rush In," as well as a return to series television a few years ago on the Aaron Sorkin-created "Studio 60," but in general, audiences didn't respond as well to his work in other, non-Chandleresque roles. Familiarity didn't breed contempt in this case, but inhabiting a character for as long as he did may have -- at least for awhile -- handcuffed him to that type in people's minds.
After a few years away from TV, Perry is back with "Mr. Sunshine," a comedy that he co-created and produced, playing a character that he likely hopes -- outside of their physical resemblance -- would never be confused with Chandler Bing. (Another degree of separation for the show is that it doesn't air on NBC, but ABC, the network that has helped his former on-screen wife Courteney Cox build a new comedy -- and a new character. And, perhaps ironically, his show will get its first run in the timeslot her show usually occupies -- Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., immediately following "Modern Family.")
The new half-hour is the story of Ben (played by Perry), the manager of the Sunshine Center, a fictional San Diego sports arena. As he passes his 40th birthday, the self-centered Ben starts to reconsider the choices he's made in his personal life -- not the least of which is his non-committal relationship with the arena's attractive marketing chief, Alice (played by Andrea Anders) -- while maintaining his grasp on the day-to-day activities of the complex, as well as those of his decidedly eccentric boss, Crystal (played by Allison Janney).
There's more than a few good-sized laughs here, particularly from Janney, who immerses herself in a juicy role. Her Crystal is a brusque, politically incorrect arena owner who keeps an oil painting of herself in her office and tools around the building in a golf cart strung with white Christmas lights. A guest appearance by Jorge Garcia (of "Lost" fame) as the head of the building's maintenance department -- whose name Ben cannot remember, even though he's worked there two years -- is also fun to watch. (Garcia is another likable on-screen presence, who -- like Perry -- has earned a shot to carry a show on his own.)
The problem is that the show doesn't seem to know where it wants to go or what it wants to do -- at least it doesn't just yet -- and therefore feels a little tentative, like a work-in-progress. The actual business of a sports arena has loads of potential for comedy, both among the personnel and the events that happen there, but the pilot script tried to put so many story elements in play, both in the business and personal realms, that it ended up feeling overloaded. (The pilot's main arena-related plot point -- the ice from the previous night's hockey game refused to melt, which prevented a circus crew from being able to finish their load-in and set-up -- was funny, but it was also dispatched far too quickly.)
As for Perry, he's fine as Ben, delivering quips as expertly as ever. But it doesn't feel like he quite has a handle on the character yet, like he isn't sure what notes he wants to play. Should Ben be darker, more unlikable? Or should he be brighter, more accessible?
Or to put it another way -- less of a Chandler, or more?
The answer to that question could very well determine how fast the show comes together -- or even if it will at all. I liked the pilot enough to keep my eye on the show for awhile, but if it doesn't take shape soon, even an actor as likable as Perry won't be able to keep me watching.
Two and a half stars (out of four).