Netflix show starring Michael Douglas is tender, hilariously brittle

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Among the promises of Netflix's streaming revolution is the notion that people who excel at creating one kind of TV (people such as Chuck Lorre, Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy) might truly flourish when freed from the challenges of prime time. No more worries about overnight and time-shifted Nielsen ratings. No more structuring episodes around precisely measured commercial breaks. No restrictions on adult themes and language.

But those are mostly technical matters. What about artistry? Can a producer who succeeds within network boundaries rise to the challenge of creating something surprising and authentic, while still retaining that broad sense of appeal?

With his tender yet hilariously brittle eight-episode dramedy "The Kominsky Method," Lorre has answered that question with a confident "yes." The reigning sitcom king (his hits for CBS include "Two and a Half Men," "Mike and Molly," "Mom" and, of course, "The Big Bang Theory") takes "write what you know" to an appreciable extreme here, veering from the usual sitcom format (studio audience; multiple cameras) to a thoughtfully conceived, single-camera, funny/sad story about two older men - an actor and his agent - coping with mortality and other lion-in-winter agenda items: loneliness, professional decline, prostate problems and general entropy.

Initially, "The Kominsky Method" looks too familiar. At 66, Lorre has said the show is taken directly from the conversations and moods that currently color his world - a world that looks not so different from Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which most problems are excruciatingly first-world and old men on the west side of Los Angeles can find just about any daily encounter to be fodder for existential griping.

It wouldn't be at all surprising to see some of "Curb's" characters accidentally float past here, along with some other L.A. sourpuss stereotypes who orbit the entertainment industry and keep turning up in TV shows to kvetch about mediocre service, awkward encounters and long-held Hollyweird grudges. "Grace and Frankie," "Better Things," "The Comeback" - fresh territory, it isn't.

The deja-vu runs especially strong when we first see Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas), a briefly famous actor turned acting coach who runs his own little school, and whose world already feels a tad too proximate to the Emmy-winning performance Henry Winkler just delivered as a passionate but peculiar acting coach in HBO's "Barry."

Sandy meets his longtime agent, Norman Newlander (Alan Arkin), for their regular lunch at (where else?) the venerable Musso & Frank Grill. After engaging in a ritual banter of insults, it's clear to the viewer that the men have had a fond friendship for decades - bonded chiefly by anomie and exasperation, the kind of friendship that might only exist on TV.

Norman's wife, Eileen (Susan Sullivan), is losing a battle with cancer, and Sandy, who quite obviously fears anything having to do with decay, has avoided coming over to the house to see her. When he finally does, Sullivan delivers a quick but particularly moving scene, imploring the thrice-divorced Sandy to settle down and stop dating younger women and to look after Norman when and if she's gone.

It's no surprise that Douglas, 74, and Arkin, 84, wear their roles with professional ease - both are quite funny.

For the most part, Lorre's sense of humor stings and zings, in ways that both honor and broaden his sitcom achievements. If there's a joke to be had, Lorre will make it; in this case, that sort of predictability is reassuring and enjoyable. The show is snarky but personable, with most of the pleasure coming from Arkin and Douglas' expert depiction of that rarest of things - a frank and honest friendship between two men.

"The Kominsky Method" (eight episodes) is available for streaming now on Netflix.

 

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