Every time a “Friends” alum takes another primetime swing, an angel gets his wings. Or maybe it just feels that way, as the Courteney Cox vehicle “Cougar Town” passes the baton to Matthew Perry and “Mr. Sunshine” in the coveted post-“Modern Family” slot. Perry might be the best-suited co-star of that one-time NBC titan to carry his own program, but this new series is an awfully thin construct — the kind where a visiting circus inevitably unleashes a character’s pathological phobia of clowns. Unfortunately for the pilot, no one need fear being assailed by excessive doses of mirth.
Perry (who also produces and co-wrote) is Ben, who oversees the Sunshine Center, a San Diego arena that hosts everything from concerts to political conventions to that aforementioned circus. As in so many sitcoms, his entire life is defined by his co-workers, from his crazy, “borderline racist” boss Crystal (“The West Wing’s” Allison Janney, unleashed with wide-eyed abandon) to marketing director Alice (Andrea Anders), with whom Ben has been carrying on a casual, “We’re seeing other people” affair.
Of course, it only takes Alice’s announcement that she’s met someone to shake Ben out of his self-absorbed daze and make him ready to commit to her. So we’ll have the romantic tension of that, in theory, to go with cleaning up Crystal’s messes and managing her simpleton of a son, Roman (Nate Torrence), who has no discernible skills beyond a goofy smile and wealthy mom.
In an odd bit of trivia, “Mr. Sunshine” represents Anders’ second romantic pairing opposite a “Friends” alum (she also co-starred in “Joey”), and both exercises have managed to produce zero chemistry. That leaves one’s tolerance for Crystal’s over-the-top zaniness, at least initially, as the only real support Perry has here, though his eager assistant (Portia Doubleday) — who may have lit a man on fire — exhibits potential.
Thanks to Perry, who can express bewilderment via an arched eyebrow or casual shrug with the best of them, “Mr. Sunshine” (wholly unrelated, by the way, to an eponymous 1986 sitcom starring Jeffrey Tambor) has a fighting chance. He brings as much goodwill to the task as any of his former colleagues, and was underappreciated for his work in “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”
That said, the uneven tone bears a resemblance to “Cougar Town,” which has consistently managed to send a startling cohort of “Modern Family” viewers fumbling for the remote. And while the varied events coming to the center each week do create comedic possibilities, “Sunshine” will wax or wane less on what passes through that revolving door than on the underwhelming occupants of its regular offices.
Barring dramatic improvement on that front, get ready to send out the clowns.