It’s hard to stay current. That’s one of the points of “The Kominsky Method,” a sitcom starring Michael Douglas as a thespian and acting teacher who’s increasingly confounded by his venal young students. Douglas’ Sandy Kominsky, whose career has shifted from having been left out of Hollywood to being left behind by it, finds himself contemplating what lies ahead and how much the world around him has changed. Over the course of the season, he manfully resists meeting that world.
The show’s depiction of a Hollywood actors’ workshop — ground recently trod with more loving wit by HBO’s “Barry” — glimmers with contempt for a generation of aspiring performers. Kominsky’s pupils, dreaming less of artistic achievement than of placement in commercials, only seem to come alive when debating which members of protected classes may play what roles. A white man performs a monologue from August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which a black woman counters with a particularly barbed bit of “The Boys in the Band”; it’s about as funny as it sounds, and fueled with a dollop of disrespect for both. The show’s view of cultural appropriation is that it’s a concern of the young, who have too much time on their hands; Sandy, who’s never been given cause to think about identity, barely thinks about it even as “The Kominsky Method” pauses to gawp.
Trying too hard to relate to his class, aside from one older student (Nancy Travis) with whom he can bond over mutual derision and mutual attraction, is a waste of time better spent reminiscing. Sandy is merrily stuck in the past with his agent and best friend Norman (Alan Arkin). After Sandy is turned down for a role on a CBS sitcom because the network has decided to “go more ethnic,” the pair have a “Who’s on First?”-style exchange occasioned by the fact that the network instead cast the rapper Ludacris. When Norman suffers a personal loss early in the season, he and Sandy are pushed down different avenues of reflection; their eventual discord provides the show’s strongest moments.
Douglas, as congenitally likable as ever, brings charisma but little more to Kominsky, written less as a role than as a series of defense mechanisms and gripes. He has suffered real pain — been unlucky in love with three marriages, missed the career to which he feels entitled — and yet grows to seem more and more inert as he refuses to allow himself to feel. He lashes out, then moves on. The able Sarah Baker plays his daughter, Mindy, a character whose inability to communicate at all with her father clarifies just how many opportunities the show’s writers have missed to deepen Sandy. It’s not much fun to watch a curmudgeon be curmudgeonly without someone or something powerful enough to cut through the attitude. Arkin, given grief and not just grievances to play, comes as close as anyone, but he’s outmatched by Douglas’ angry anomie.
The show has a similar flavor to “Grace and Frankie” — Netflix’s other traditionally built sitcom about two older friends coming to terms with an unfamiliar world — but has replaced that series’ vim with something more sour. For Douglas and producer Chuck Lorre, placing a show on Netflix (the prolific Lorre’s second, after the canceled “Disjointed”) represents a bid to remain on the bleeding edge of culture without altering their act. (Lorre’s longtime home CBS, notably, has very gradually become “more ethnic” in its sitcom slate than the lily-white “Kominsky” or the shows Lorre has produced for the network.)
And for Netflix, which has few realms left to conquer, it’s a chance to engage with the last segment of the audience that may not be habituated to streaming: older folks who will relate to Douglas’ story of aging out of every target demographic. The show and its platform meet in the middle. But the message of “The Kominsky Method” may be lost on most people who’ve bothered to subscribe to Netflix. This is a comedy meant for network television both in format and message: that not only is changing with the times hard, but it’s ultimately not worth it. Viewers might be forgiven for differing.
Comedy: Netflix (eight episodes, all reviewed); Fri., Nov. 16. Running time: 30 min.
Cast: Michael Douglas, Alan Arkin, Nancy Travis, Sarah Baker