The Telefile
<i>About a Boy</i>: We Give It About Five Episodes

Not since CBS's Great Alex O'Loughlin Campaign of 2007-2010 has a network invested as much effort in making an actor "happen" as NBC has with David Walton. The actor's relationship with the Peacock dates back to 2006, when he had a supporting role on Heist, that creatively-named heist series that vanished after five episodes. Roles on such short-lived "Wait… that was a TV show?" series as Quarterlife (which premiered online before moving to terrestrial television), 100 Questions and Perfect Couples followed, eventually culminating in 2012's Bent, an ensemble comedy starring Walton, Amanda Peet and Jeffery Tambor that NBC felt so confident in, they burned it off over the course of three weeks in March. If nothing else, at least they're giving Walton's latest series, About a Boy -- based on the 2002 Hugh Grant movie and the 1998 Nick Hornby novel -- a prime post-Olympics berth on its way to an inevitable cancellation.

NBC has gone all-out for their latest Walton-centric venture in other ways as well, hiring Friday Night Lights guru Jason Katims to oversee the show and Iron Man director Jon Favreau to distill the 101-minute feature into a 22-minute episode, as well as surrounding the star with sharper comic performers like Minnie Driver, Leslie Bibb (who is only around for the pilot, unfortunately) and The Daily Show's Al Madrigal. And then, of course, there's the titular boy, played here by Benjamin Stockham, who has the kind of cherubic face and heart-on-his-sleeve attitude that's designed to make the audience at home go "Awwww" while they watch the snarky leading man bonding with the tyke through man/child play dates and a talent show rendition of One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful." Basically, About a Boy has been expertly rigged in Walton's favor much in the way that CBS finally cracked the O'Laughlin code by making him the straight man in the Hawaii Five-0 remake, but it can't solve the fundamental issue with any of the actor's shows: he's just not particularly appealing.

That fatal flaw was covered up more successfully in Bent, where the writing was generally better and Peet and Tambor (not to mention well-used bit players like J.B. Smoove and Jesse Plemons) were able to pull focus whenever the camera threatened to linger on the ostensible leading man for too long. The premise of Boy -- irresponsible playboy learns to be a better man through his relationship with a precocious kid and the kid's single mother (Driver) -- forces Walton front and center and he withers in the spotlight. In theory, the role is as ideal for his caddish screen persona as it was for Hugh Grant back in the day. But Grant has that layer of British charm that emerges whenever he allows his features to soften and that lopsided smile to break through his perpetual smirk. Walton can't make a similar transformation, certainly not within the abbreviated running time offered by the pilot.

To be fair, as an adaptation, About a Boy is actually quite well-plotted with Favreau hitting all the necessary dramatic beats -- up to and including a happy ending -- within his allotted 22 minutes. (He also makes nice use of San Francisco, which stands in for London, though whether the budget permits location shooting going forward is an open question.) In a way, the movie almost feels overly padded when compared to this stripped-down version of events. But that's also a detriment since it's hard to see where the series can really go after the final scene, beyond constantly repeating the same cycle of "Walton goofs around with Stockham, thus annoying Driver" followed by "Walton goofs up with Stockham, thus annoying Driver" and ending up at "Walton apologizes to Stockham, thus endearing himself to Driver." The appeal of the novel and film version is that the central character changes during the course of the narrative. Series television (particularly an open-ended network sitcom) often fears change, which suggests we'll see Walton go through the same motions in every episode until the series finale when true growth finally occurs. And, judging by his track record, About a Boy won't last long enough to arrive at the place of personal improvement.




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