About a Boy, a new NBC sitcom premiering Saturday after the network’s primetime Olympics coverage before moving into its regular Tuesday berth next week, first saw life as a 1998 novel by British author Nick Hornby, which was adapted into a hit movie comedy in 2002. That film starred Hugh Grant as Will Freeman, an idly rich, emotionally stunted Londoner who finds himself after reluctantly befriending 12-year-old Marcus Brewer (Nicholas Hoult), the precocious yet socially inept son of Fiona (Toni Collette), a neurotic single mom.
For the new NBC series, executive producer Jason Katims (Parenthood) has shaved a year off Marcus’ age and moved the action and characters to San Francisco. When we first meet Will (David Walton, Bent), a songwriter who lives very comfortably off the royalties of a blockbuster Christmas tune he wrote, he’s trolling a support group for single parents, seeking easy prey for his erotic exploits. His quarry at the moment is Dakota (Leslie Bibb of GCB in a recurring guest role), a lovely but somewhat ditsy cellist who easily falls for Will’s cynical lie that he has a young son who is stricken with leukemia.
Will’s discovery that women find vulnerable single dads irresistible coincides with the arrival of new neighbors, Fiona Brewer (Minnie Driver) and her 11-year-old son, Marcus (Benjamin Stockham, 1600 Penn). Soon, the two males strike up a deal: Marcus will pretend to be Will’s doomed son and Will will let the boy hang out at his next-door apartment, playing games and chowing down on the meat his staunchly vegan mom forbids.
NBC sent out three episodes for preview, but after watching them, I still have only a hazy idea about the three principal characters. In the film, Grant and Hoult were able to build a convincing relationship arc as Marcus begins to develop new confidence and self-esteem from spending time with Will, who in turn truly starts to connect with his improbable young friend. Despite good performances and chemistry from the two male leads, the TV show is notably less successful in this regard.
Walton, who has been flirting with TV stardom for years now, has the kind of delicate touch that allows him to walk the fine line between genuine cad and harmless mischief-maker, but the writing does him very few favors. Will’s degree of jerkiness – indeed, his core personality – keeps shifting from episode to episode, sometimes even from scene to scene. In one episode, he improbably agrees to babysit for his best friend (Al Madrigal) and his emasculating wife (Anne Mumolo) and, in the span of that two-hour gig, transforms himself from clueless confirmed bachelor into a Child Whisperer who tenderly tells one of his young charges that he loves her.
The character writing for Marcus is likewise erratic. There’s a genuinely funny moment early on when the boy catches Will in a delicate situation and realizes his adult neighbor needs Marcus to cover for Will’s lie. Marcus quickly plays along, then leans in and whispers to Will, “I own you.” That suggests a level of savviness that we rarely see elsewhere in what Marcus says and does.
It’s poor Driver, though, who needs a full-blown character makeover. This Fiona is a spiritual sister to Susan Mayer, the bottomlessly needy single mom played by Teri Hatcher on Desperate Housewives. She fancies herself an attentive mother, yet is anything but that, with a parenting style that seems to focus on what Marcus isn’t allowed to do. In a scene in the pilot, Will is happily grilling a steak on his backyard barbecue when Fiona interrupts him to demand that (a) Will turn down his (moderately loud) music so she can meditate outside instead of simply going indoors and (b) refrain from using his grill anytime the prevailing breeze might blow the meat aromas into her yard and offend her pristine vegan sensibilities. That’s self-absorption on a fairly epic scale.
I don’t mean to suggest that About a Boy is a terrible show, but at least for now, it’s neither as funny nor as emotionally resonant as it could and should be. Walton and young Master Stockham, though, have a nicely relaxed mojo that may keep me watching and pulling for them, at least for the moment.