A woman relies on the help of her childhood imaginary friend when she starts getting to know her boyfriend's three grown-up kids
“Imaginary Mary” is a show about an adult woman with a fuzzy, CGI imaginary friend — which is to say, “Imaginary Mary,” right out of the gate, is a show that makes no sense. Children have imaginary friends; not adults with 401(k)s and mortgages. The contrast between Alice (Jenna Elfman)’s sophisticated life as a public relations executive and her Pixar-esque, Furby-like security blanket, Mary (voiced by Rachel Dratch) is foundational to “Imaginary Mary’s” premise, which seeks to illustrate how even the most poised adult can be swayed by their long-held fears and fantasies. But the purposeful asymmetry of the premise doesn’t resolve into unified storytelling, in either of the two episodes sent to critics. Instead, “Imaginary Mary” feels most often like a family sitcom that is haunted by its own flawed idea, personified by a mostly cute but sometimes terrifying white-and-blue creature who usually has really bad advice.
The audience is introduced to Alice as a lonely girl with a neglectful upbringing, who, with the help of her imaginary friend, Mary, (developed with crayon, on paper, at the age of 6) manages to become a reasonably functional adult. But when she starts dating a divorced dad (Stephen Schneider), her anxieties go into overdrive — not because of him, but because of his three school-age kids. Alice’s fears around parenting appear to stem from her take on her own parents, but it’s otherwise not totally clear why meeting Ben’s kids would send her into a panic spiral. Especially as Mary’s contributions to Alice’s problems are… questionable, at best. Dratch, who does her best to make Mary winsome, still cannot cross the gulf of acting required when the primary relationship in a show is between a human and a work of Photoshop.
This is especially jarring because ABC has become so skilled at constructing believable, unconventional families around different premises, whether that is a black family trying to hold onto its identity in an affluent white neighborhood or parents with a special-needs child trying to keep their finances in order. But partly because Elfman is required to emote to something inanimate, the actual family sitcom elements of this sitcom seem weirdly superficial. Alice’s character promises quite a bit of depth, and it’s not difficult to see how she might find a way, through pitfalls, to creating lasting relationships with her quasi-stepchildren. But that sounds like a more fruitful premise for a show than a show with an imaginary friend; “Inside Out,” which probably inspired “Imaginary Mary,” evinced a much more carefully thought-out concept of personifying elements of the human psyche than anything the ABC sitcom has to offer.
And indeed, it’s haphazardness that most radiates from the sitcom. “Imaginary Mary” feels a little hasty and half-baked, with a few ideas that point to interesting concepts without the full force of consideration behind any of them. (Who is really the audience for a show about a career woman with a stuffed-animal bestie? Will Mary always be in Alice’s head, and if so, how does that stay interesting over multiple seasons? And if Alice’s fears are one day conquered, does Mary… die?) Of course, it is a real hurdle to date someone with children when they aren’t in your life plan — or to confront anxieties from the past while seeking comfort in familiar patterns. But “Imaginary Mary” can’t get out of its own furry, bug-eyed way long enough to really tell that story.