The title Mr. Sunshine is meant to be just a little sarcastic. Matthew Perry plays Ben Donovan, a San Diego sportsarena manager who’s harried, lonely, and a wise guy. He’s the sort of person to whom other people have no trouble saying ”You only think about yourself.” There’s a reason the drawing of the sun that’s used in the opening credits has a neutral slash for a mouth: A smile would be too sunny for this frequently sour sitcom.
Ben’s boss, the owner of the Sunshine Center, is Crystal Cohen, played by Allison Janney, going for oblivious wackiness in a way that seems designed to make you forget she was ever the highly sensible C.J. Cregg on The West Wing. Impulsive (”I see on the schedule that John Cougar Mellencamp is playing here next Wednesday,” she tells Ben. ”I’d very much like to make love to him”), pill-popping (”I’m crazy high right now”), and neglectful of her grown son (the puppydog- like Nate Torrence), Crystal is always on the verge of causing some public relations nightmare that Perry’s Ben must forestall.
On the romantic front, Ben likes marketing director Alice (who wouldn’t? She’s played by the truly sunny Andrea Anders, from Better Off Ted), but his darn selfishness slows their relationship. That, plus her attraction to another Sunshine Center employee (Las Vegas‘ James Lesure). Lost‘s Jorge Garcia rounds out the premiere as the ”head maintenance man” whose name Ben cannot remember, although the guy has worked there for two years.
Even if we could get past credulity-straining details like Ben not knowing the name of the head of maintenance, Mr. Sunshine has a trickier challenge: overcoming the Chandler Bing Problem. While Janney completely discards her West Wing mannerisms, Perry gives Chandleresque line readings, and his pained-single-guy expressions are very Friends-like. But the series is taking a calculated risk, and clearly has a plan: By saying from the start that Ben is a self-absorbed jerk, the show intends to change him — redeem him — as it proceeds. This will, presumably, result in a Ben who’s not a Chandler. I hope that works out for Perry and Mr. Sunshine, because the show is well cast: Janney is wacky-funny; Anders is a charmer; and guest star Garcia needs to be made a regular, with an actual character name, immediately. And I’m rooting for Perry. After doing a fine job on a good but flawed high-profile flop — that would be Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — he merits another chance. If Courteney Cox can keep Cougar Town alive and Matt LeBlanc can emerge from Joey with the cleverness of Showtime’s Episodes, surely there’s a place for Perry in the TV landscape. He needs to put on a smilier face without losing his sharp edge: sunshine with the ability to inflict a burn. B?