Available on Netflix
Chuck Lorre is pretty much the king of the long-running CBS multi-camera sitcom and has been for years. Mom, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and Mike and Molly, to name but a few, are all his.
If you had to characterise these shows, ‘misanthropic’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘stereotypical’, ‘lowest common denominator’, ‘crass’ and ‘cruel’ might pepper your descriptions at various points. A few choice other words might be there, too.
All of which makes The Kominsky Method, Lorre’s latest addition to his comedy oeuvre, quite a surprise. It’s a genuine Netflix original, for starters. It’s also a single-camera comedy. It’s also funny, smart, human and even poignant at times.
Colour me surprised.
The Kominsky Method
The central characters are twice-divorced, formerly successful actor Sandy Kominsky, who’s played by no less a star than Michael Douglas. Kominsky is now a much more successful acting coach, who runs an LA acting studio with his daughter (Go On‘s Sarah Baker), teaching various young wannabes how to act.
Kominsky best friend is – sadly for him – his curmudgeonly agent, again played by no less a star than Alan Arkin. Arkin has been happily married to Susan Sullivan (Castle, Dharma and Greg) for 40 years, but even more sadly, she’s dying of cancer.
It’s no big spoiler to say that Sullivan passes away in the first episode and the rest of the series is then about Arkin’s reaction, as well as how Douglas’s and Arkin’s relationship changes afterwards as they try to navigate single old age – particularly once Arkin’s alcoholic daughter (House‘s Lisa Edelstein) shows up and Douglas starts dating one of his students, the nearly age appropriate Nancy Travis (Three Men and a Baby, Last Man Standing).
Cue hilarious hijinks? Well, yes, oddly enough, as well as a surprising number of high profile cameos and even the occasional tear.
Message? What message?
If The Kominsky Method has a message, it’s that life sucks but other people, no matter how dickish they are, make it better. Douglas and Arkin are equally dickish, just in different ways, although both try to be nice. Neither of them is especially suited to being with other people, even each other, but together, they make an odd couple who keep each other going through the indignities of old age.
For the most part, Arkin is the one who suffers those indignities. After losing his wife, he has to endure her funeral, at which Edelstein shows up in the worst possible way. He then has to find a purpose in life again, now that his purpose has gone, something at which he struggles, even when he starts imagining Sullivan’s ghost appearing to provide him with advice. Some women are interested in him and want to help him (including no less a star than Ann-Margaret), but he’s not really geared up to dealing with that any more. All he can do is be miserable and angry, even at work, where no less a star than Elliott Gould wants to pitch him action movies about heroes with dementia.
Douglas, meanwhile, is a far more jovial old man, one far less convinced that everything is sh*t than Arkin is, even though he spends most of the season dealing with either the fact he’s forgotten to pay rather a lot of taxes or the ramifications of his enlarged, potentially cancerous prostate. Usually by peeing a lot or visiting his urologist – no less a star than Danny de Vito. Nevertheless, he also has to be patient with his young students as they ask him what motivations they should channel for their shampoo ad auditions or pitch him their TV pilot about their real-life incestuous relationships with their half-brothers.
There’s also Travis and her teenage son for Douglas to deal with, something that again, he seems singularly poorly geared up to doing.
The Kominsky meander
Plot-wise, that’s about it and indeed, very little of what plot there is really gets followed through, whether it’s Arkin and Edelstein’s relationship, Arkin’s return to work or any of what happens to any of Douglas’s students. Instead, it’s really all vehicles for one-liners and attempts to be thoughtful about old age.
Here is where the show’s surprises lie. Although a lot of it you’ll have seen before, whether it’s enlarged prostates, wacky funerals, predatory circling women at funerals or the older generation’s frustrations with technology, social media, human interactions in the age of smartphones, and more. But in the hands of Lorre and the cast, it becomes a lot smarter and is deftly handled. Douglas’ trip to the urologist could be simple obvious one-liners but instead becomes slightly more meta, with a discussion of the sorts of one-liners that urologists often get when people try to be funny.
There’s a really smart take on casting controversies, too, with one clueless white student stereotypically taking on a black role in a monologue, then all the other students turning to the only black student to ask if she’s offended and whether it’s okay for them to be offended; she then does her own monologue in which she plays a camp gay man – does racism trump homophobia or vice versa?
Douglas and Travis’ relationship is also clearly one of mature equals and there are long (often funny) discussions about whether it’s okay to simply really like someone, rather than love, at their ages. Is it necessary for Douglas and Travis’s son to get on or is he old enough now for it not to matter?
Similarly, there are deeper moments, such as an entire episode dedicated to Arkin’s thoughts of suicide . Don’t be surprised that later on in the season, that gets completely forgotten about, because Lorre’s episodic tendencies clearly outweigh his ability to do a season arc, but in the hands of Arkin, there’s a raw power to it you might not have expected from an ostensible comedy.
Equally, there’s an episode where Douglas has to come to terms with the fact his success peaked long ago, but the season concludes that maybe being a teacher who brings success to others is just as, if not more rewarding and something more liable to stand the test of time.
Sadly, the female roles are a little underdeveloped and I don’t think the Bechdel Test is passed by any scene. But Edelstein, Baker, Travis and Sullivan all do well with their roles and get a decent array of jokes of their own.
Madness to the method
All in all, beyond an opening episode that’s neither funny nor especially poignant, The Kominsky Method is a star-studded bittersweet comedy with a reasonable amount to say about old age and navigating life. If you’re over a certain age and Grace and Frankie wasn’t for you, The Kominsky Method could well be. The eight half-hour episodes whizzed past and I laughed and (almost) cried throughout. Give it a whirl, but stick through till at least the end of episode two.