Hollywood elder statesmen Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin have a punchy chemistry in The Kominsky Method as, respectively, venerated acting coach Sandy Kominsky and his best friend, Norman. The series begins with Norman’s wife, Eileen (Susan Sullivan), on her deathbed, and Sandy committed to buoying his old pal’s spirits while struggling to maintain his own vitality as both an actor and a man. Together, the actors forge an endearing portrait of aged titans, with Douglas’s Sandy providing a humorously frenetic foil to Arkin’s deadpan performance as the gruff but lovable Norman.
The Kominsky Method clearly represents a departure from The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and the rest of creator Chuck Lorre’s highly successful, if only moderately interesting, output. The show is serialized, with the plot of many episodes kicking off right after the previous episode’s culmination, and gone are the four-camera setups and canned laughter of Lorre’s earlier sitcoms. The Kominsky Method is more “adult,” if only because Sandy and Norman are permitted to use expletives like “fuck.” Mostly, the two joke about their dicks, as Lorre seems to consider the urinary and erectile dysfunctions of aging men to be a limitless font of humor.
The series is free from the 22-minute time constraint and traditional multiple-act structure that a network sitcom adopts, but Lorre fails to use this liberty to craft a story with tangible stakes. Sandy and Norman mostly hang around cracking wise about their old age or the state of young people, and any real problems that arise—such as Sandy owing back taxes, which threatens his acting studio—are swiftly and conveniently resolved. On the surface, The Kominsky Method is concerned with late-life reckoning, but Lorre doesn’t allow his characters to process the reality of their plight, and inserts a rote joke whenever the series approaches solemnity or insight.
The series remains rooted to the same mass-appeal, generic perspective of Lorre’s previous shows, in which character types deliver barely passable humor. Ironically, the lack of canned laughter in The Kominsky Method has the unintended effect of revealing the toothless, low-hanging quality of Lorre’s comedic sensibility. Throughout, the jokes delivered by Sandy and Norman suggest little about their characters beyond their age, and resemble bits written by a millennial who’s never met an old person.
One plot thread concerns Sandy’s frequent urination, a sign that he might have prostate cancer. As the series brushes over the emotional fallout of the revelation, Lorre reaches for laughs. The morning after a date that ends with Sandy having an emergency in his girlfriend’s hedge, Douglas gamely delivers this predictable chestnut: “Last night, I kissed a woman. Then I peed in her bush.” When Sandy goes for a prostate exam, the urologist (Danny DeVito) tells him: “Funny thing is, gay guys don’t even like this.” The joke is proudly off-color, but Sandy’s vague reaction obscures its intended target. Is it gay guys? Sandy? The doctor? Perhaps, inadvertently, it’s us for watching. Even Sandy’s acting class, that kind of setting that’s typically a deep well of meta-humor, is blunted by Lorre’s view of young people being self-absorbed airheads capable only of parsing what exactly constitutes cultural appropriation.
While the humor in The Kominsky Method is antiquated, its greatest transgression is simply being unimaginative and boring, which is indicative of the show’s lack of a clear perspective. Sandy’s romance with a student named Lisa (Nancy Travis), who as a single mom and struggling actress provides the potential for a nuanced observation of relationships, is reduced to jokes about Sandy’s libido and tired clichés such as “The key to a happy relationship is that the woman should always feel like she comes first.” The comedy would be more effective if Lorre was laughing at Sandy and Norman for their insecurities and retrograde opinions. The Kominsky Method is doggedly sympathetic toward its protagonists, even when it fails to bestow them with feelings that don’t scan as mere grumpiness or emasculation.
The only truly affecting moment in the series comes when Norman breaks down after being surprised to find his wife’s dress at a dry cleaner. It’s a heart-wrenching scene, which Lorre smartly uses to conclude an episode, finally resisting the urge to ease the tension of a scene with a joke about, say, piss or Viagra. Norman’s weeping throws the rest of the season into stark relief, and underscores the glaring conflict at the center of The Kominsky Method. The series is concerned with mortality and inevitability, but Lorre can’t derive humor from the gallows or bear to stare too long at the implications of Sandy and Norman’s age. It acknowledges but never honestly assesses the obstacles that come late in life. Sandy might have prostate cancer, but Lorre can only wonder about the strength of his stream.