In Netflix’s The Kominsky Method, life is hard, but peeing is harder.
It is for our protagonists of a certain age, anyway; Michael Douglas’ Sandy Kominsky, a former star turned acting teacher, and Alan Arkin’s Norman Newlander, his long-time friend and agent.
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In their old age, they’ve got a lot more to worry about than ailing prostates. Loneliness, bereavement and looming mortality are addressed in disparate sentimental moments throughout the comedy’s eight-episode run, to varying degrees of success. But the series, and its creator, US sitcom veteran Chuck Lorre (known for mega-hits like The Big Bang Theory, Mom and Two and a Half Men), seem more interested in what’s going on below the belt.
Sandy, you see, is a shagger, and a top one at that, as a montage of him bedding an array of actresses he has coached tells us in the first episode. So, the idea of anything limiting his abilities in bed is much more troubling than, say, the death of his best friend’s wife, or his own cancer scare.
And despite tempting Douglas back to TV for the first time in 40 years – alongside a typically magnetic performance from Arkin – the show fumbles as it tries to give all of these things equal footing. The jokes come hard and fast, but the hit rate is low, and the bad ones often undermine moments of genuine pathos.
About the rather slight plot, then. Sandy and Norman are two best friends who are becoming increasingly reliant upon one another in their twilight years. Norman’s wife Eileen (Susan Sullivan) is dying of cancer, and when Sandy finally visits her, she asks him to look after her husband when she’s gone. He takes this quite literally.
A family tragedy then brings Norman’s alcoholic daughter Phoebe (Lisa Edelstein) into town, where she begins to wreak havoc, and Sandy kicks off a relationship with his student Lisa, played by Nancy Travis. But this all feels like trimmings to the core bromance, which is mostly charming, as the pair gripe about their failing bodies and affectionately insult one another, if not quite enough to sustain each episode (they range from 22-32 minutes).
While Douglas will be the name that pulls in the audiences, Arkin is the clear stand-out, as a character coming to terms with the fact that he will likely have to live out his last days alone; he brilliantly wears that kind of bristling, reluctant sorrow of a man who has grown up thinking that sentimentality is for the weak.
His co-lead, Douglas, is good too, but his character is deeply – and I think, unintentionally – unlikeable. He’s cut from the same cloth as Charlie Sheen’s misogynistic protagonist in Two and a Half Men, and it’s increasingly difficult to be concerned about his urination woes, a storyline which drags on for almost four episodes. However, if you’ve ever had a desire to see Michael Douglas scrolling through porn on his iPad or having his prostate thoroughly investigated by Danny DeVito, you’re in luck…
The problem is, there is not enough genuine depth on show here, and when the writers do try to say something insightful about ageing and bereavement, it usually comes out in aphorisms that flutter away immediately.
There’s also something distinctly old-fashioned about the series. While it looks and feels like a streaming era comedy – there’s no laugh track, it’s serialised with episodes of varying length, and there is little to no plot – it’s surprisingly off-the-pace in its approach to race and gender relations. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but the idea of this show passing the Bechdel test is laughable; the female characters – daughters, wives, girlfriends – are there entirely in service of the men.
Even more disconcerting, at one point Sandy begins a cringe-inducing monologue about diversity in front of his nearly all-white acting class, that could be paraphrased as: “we’re all the same, deep down.”
It feels hypocritical, given the few persons of colour and women in the cast and crew. In post #MeToo Hollywood, it’s best advised to lead by example.
It’s a shame, because there are glimpses of promise in here. The series is at its most engaging when there’s genuine emotion on show, but this is too often cut short by silly plotlines and mediocre jokes. It may well have worked better as a drama with brief flashes of comedy, rather than the reverse.
That is to say, The Kominsky Method is the kind of show that you could breeze through rather happily in a couple of lazy weekend afternoons, but you’re not likely to come away with much more than a slightly sour taste in your mouth, and a desire to scrub a few distressing images from your memory.
The Kominsky Method is released on Netflix on Friday 16th November