The networks can rest a little easy right now: HBO proves that not everything they touch turns to gold with “The Mind of the Married Man,” an overblown take on the sexual predilections and peccadilloes of a trio of ribald Chicago newspaper columnists. Much as it might appear to have the ambition of being a male “Sex and the City,” it does not have any of that show’s strengths — character, plot, reality.
The HBO series starring Sarah Jessica Parker succeeds in its universality: seemingly every viewer can associate with the psychological and sexual turmoil of the four thirtysomethings navigating the Manhattan dating scene and attempting to succeed in their respective businesses. Of paramount importance, however, is how that universality extends to Parker’s character Carrie, the woman with whom most every female viewer sees as herself. It’s the circle of friends who fit the roles of Amanda, Samantha and Charlotte.
For men, or at least ones who see their lives reflected in sitcoms, the pole setter is “Seinfeld,” a comic world in which Jerry is the immutable I — and for every Jerry there’s an Elaine, George and Kramer. When we meet Micky, Jake and Doug — and it’s quite obvious the audience is supposed to nod in recognition of these guys — one can only turn to an old Seinfeld riff: Who are these people?
“Married Man” belongs to Mike Binder, who has so many credits on the show that one wonders if he’s signing for deliveries as well. His key trio, not to mention his wife in the series (Sonya Walger as Donna), are painted with broad stereotyped strokes, placing sex at the core of their being. I have a libido, their every thought exclaims, therefore I am. Just once, you’d think they’d talk about the Cubs or their jobs or booze.
And then there’s the unrealistic setting for their jobs. The men are columnists for a newspaper in Chicago that has lavishly overspent on them, providing them with offices, assistants and enough cash to wear sharp suits everyday. Reality: Carrie Bradshaw is a columnist who owns a laptop, types in her bedroom and wears T-shirts.
Binder plays Micky Barnes, a man who has everything — a wife, a baby, a great job, friends, celebrity — but his lust for his new adoring assistant, Missy (Ivana Milicevic, who watched Jerry throw a game of tennis in a “Seinfeld” episode) clouds his ability to enjoy his life.
His friends function as the cartoon devil and angel that appear on the protagonist’s shoulder. Jake Berman (Jake Weber) is the philanderer who tells Micky to follow his lead: He calls a stunning “computer technician” into his office for repairs, which involved oral sex; and then, in episode three, starts having sex throughout the building with a new reporter with a fetish for public places. The meek buddy Taylor Nichols (Doug Nelson) emphasizes the merits of marriage workshops as demonstrated on videotape.
Show suffers from it’s obviousness. There’s not one moment of ambiguity in which one character stops to see the other side nor a sense that, as is the case in Edward Albee’s play “Three Tall Woman,” the hint that we’re seeing three sides of the same person.
The premiere is by far the dodgiest of the first three and as the series progress, the writing starts to get bit sharper but Binder makes a fatal error. The wife he seems to have so many problems with gets increasingly more complex and delightful. Sonya Walger is undeniably attractive — and after the first seg most people will stop asking why does she have to be British even though it’s not used to any effect — and her Donna is smart, conversant and alternately a good lover and mother. He in turn posits his deficiencies and troubles onto her; most married men, singles ones, too, will want to know why he treats her the way he does and why he has such a hard time communicating at even just a basic level.
HBO is, for the first time, going head-to-head with the broadcast nets in the fall with two series, “Mind” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David’s series that just gets funnier and wittier and drier as it goes along. (“Curb’s” second season debut follows “Mind” at 10:30 before moving to its regular timeslot of Sundays at 10:30 p.m.) David’s genius, long ago, was to cast Jason Alexander in David’s partially autobiographical character of George Costanza. In the second episode of the new season, it’s a delight to watch David take offense at characterizations of George, some of which are made by Alexander himself in a guest stint.
David, in his own series, shows the depths to which he will personally plunge; “Seinfeld,” for all its angst and self-centeredness, didn’t go into the dark corners that “Curb” willfully excavates. Binder, who has directed, acted in and written a string of forgettable movies and TV shows, could learn from David, specifically the fine-tuning of a character. He might have been well served to handle one or two fewer chores on this series, making it easier to separate the real man from the “Married Man” and, down the road, he may need to.
Initial episodes are all well directed and lensing is top rate. Characters lack earthy Midwest characteristics and the newspaper, bars and homes could be in any major city east of the Mississippi.