If you're familiar with the Nick Hornby book or the 2002 film of About A Boy, you will find that what has been kept in the new TV adaptation, coming Saturday night in a preview to NBC, is the clichéd skeleton of the story: a lazy, glib bachelor befriending the child of a single mom and learning how not to be such a selfish baby. Child-averse jerk and wisecracking moppet: a well-worn dynamic that animated, among other things, the early stages of Two And A Half Men.
Here, Will (played by Hugh Grant in the movie) is played by David Walton, a guy NBC has tried before to launch in various short-lived comedies (Bent, Perfect Couples) and who had a nice run as Jess' goofy boyfriend Sam on Fox's New Girl. Marcus, so beautifully played in the movie by baby-faced Nicholas Hoult (you may now know him as Beast from X-Men or, if you follow celebrity stuff, as Jennifer Lawrence's sometimes-boyfriend), is played by Benjamin Stockham, who's 13 years old, but plays 11 and seems even younger. And Marcus's mom, Fiona, handled in the movie in one of the best performances of Toni Collette's imposing career, is played by Minnie Driver.
The least helpful thing you can do with an adaptation of a book (or film) made by intelligent, capable people is to sniff, "Not as good as the original." After all, when a property is as adored as About A Boy, it can take a while for anything else to feel quite as good, and presumptive skepticism is a regrettably simple opening gambit. But what's problematic in this adaptation is not that the TV show has not brought along the quality of the book and film, but that it has not brought along the qualities of the book and film.
In short, in this version, rather startlingly run by Jason Katims, who did much better work (to say the least) adapting Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, both Will and Marcus have been drained of the profound sadness that made anything about the original About A Boy feel like it mattered. (We should note: The ending of the book and the ending of the film are different, and the TV show is fairly emphatically an adaptation of the film, so that's the fairest comparison.)
Gone is Fiona's suicide attempt, gone is her bone-deep depression, gone is Marcus's crushing burden of trying to help her, and gone is the pain she feels about not wanting to place the weight of her pain on him. Gone is Will's contemplative and considered belief that he is better off alone, and gone is the sense you have in the film that Will is calmly determined in his selfishness, and that he has reached his decision to be so for reasons of his own.
The frustrating thing about watching the first couple of episodes of the TV show is the sense that Walton and Driver, in particular, could probably do a braver and more thoughtful version of this story in which the melancholy that stalks the film so relentlessly – the melancholy that drives Marcus's statement that "you need backup" – is present. And Katims could certainly run one. But that's not this show, at least in the early going, and it's very hard to imagine them turning the ship around. Not impossible, but hard to imagine.
The writing of the first two episodes simply isn't giving these actors the material they need to make these characters seem significant. There's nothing wrong with what Walton is doing, but he's playing such a limited and limiting slacker that there's nothing he can really do. Driver, too, with the exception of one tearful outburst, is mostly the woman keeping it together, snarling at those who would do wrong by her kid. The hardest player in this ensemble to evaluate is Stockham, because no character here has been as egregiously flattened as Marcus, who, as written in the first two episodes, could be played by just about any cute kid, so who knows?
The pilot episode essentially traces an emotionally neutered version of the plot of the movie, culminating in a scene that makes so many wrong choices that anyone who adores the film is likely to be specifically enraged by what seems to be an almost complete failure to comprehend what was important about that story and the way it progressed and ended.
It's always possible for comedies to get better, and it's dangerous to judge them too early. But the problem with About A Boy is that the most likely audience for it is people who treasure this story – which is one of those deceptively quiet favorites that people hold very close to their hearts – and those people are going to blanch, hard, at some of these early decisions. For example, in the film, Will is living off the proceeds of a novelty song his father wrote, while in the TV show, Will is living off the proceeds of a song he wrote. It's a small thing, but in the film, having done actually nothing was fundamental to Will's character. In changing it, he becomes less an empty shell of a person and more someone who simply has the luxury of not needing to work anymore.
There are good people at work here; there are people in place who can make a good show. But the first two episodes demonstrate a pressing need to expand what's going on emotionally if they want to get past just being a trifling sitcom about a guy and a kid having silly adventures. The material will support it. They've just got to lean on it more.