Robin Williams completes a rather lengthy journey back to his TV comedy roots with “The Crazy Ones,” which casts him as a wacky advertising genius — the sort of creativity-can’t-be-shackled type that provides ample license for those famous improvisational skills and dizzying flights of hyperactive fancy. What emerges, though, in this pilot written by David E. Kelley, is a somewhat more nuanced rumination on fathers and daughters, punctuated by Williams’ trademark riffs. The comic has certainly done just fine playing a mad man without an agency portfolio, but based strictly on the pilot, this account remains up for review.
While Williams certainly qualifies as a likely CBS star — and yes, that is a genuine commodity, connoting actors of a particular age and profile — the single-camera format has relatively little purchase on a network so heavily steeped in Chuck Lorre’s multicamera fare. Moreover, the show’s attempts to balance zaniness with sweetness probably won’t do much to prevent general tolerance for Williams from determining whether “Crazy Ones” gets DVR’ed or quickly zapped.
Williams plays Simon Roberts (he’s modeled after a real advertising legend, John Montgomery, who serves as a producer and consultant), whose flightiness is dismissed as the price of harnessing his creative genius. With so many admirers surrounding him to laugh at whatever Simon says, the task of wrangling him falls to his buttoned-up daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who gets to be the sourpuss while Simon plays off sidekick Zach (James Wolk, fresh off a “Mad Men” stint) and assistant Lauren (Amanda Setton). “Lauren, do not encourage him,” Sydney tells her sternly.
The premiere hinges on a mini-crisis at the agency, which fears it is on the verge of losing McDonald’s, a major client. So execs enlist Kelly Clarkson (playing herself) to sing a new version of the McDonald’s jingle — only to run into a problem when America’s sweetheart decides a sexy song about hamburgers is just the way to spice up her goody-two-shoes image.
Despite the seemingly obvious product-placement opportunities, the producers have stressed no money has exchanged hands with these sponsors. Yet it’s hard to see whether that’s laudable or, in the crassest terms, a missed revenue stream, inasmuch as one suspects the show won’t do a lot of “artery-clogging slop”jokes.
Kelley is no stranger to writing comedy, even if it’s traditionally been in service of hourlong shows, and between his gifts as a wordsmith and Williams’ frenetic energy (best displayed in a closing-credits outtake sequence), “The Crazy Ones” has potential beyond what the pilot demonstrates. Nevertheless, it’s a slightly incongruous fit for CBS, which — seeing NBC’s vulnerability — is gambling on an expanded Thursday comedy block, using “The Big Bang Theory” as its anchor.
While Williams’ presence will likely generate initial sampling, in ad-campaign terms, that’s no guarantee of return on investment. And for all the McDonald’s slogans that inevitably bounce around your head watching the “The Crazy Ones” pilot, the one that never came to mind was, “I’m lovin’ it.”