“I wake up every morning and my first thought is what part of me is not working today,” says Norman (Alan Arkin) to his friend, Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas). It’s one of many conversations they share day in, day out, as they slowly meander through the milestones of elderly life. Going to the toilet. Funerals. Going to the toilet again. And it’s when they’re mining the mundane reality of ageing for frank complaining sessions that Netflix’s new series works – part comedy, part tragedy, all prostate pains.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Sandy grimaces at a stranger next to him in the toilet, before going back to work at his acting school, where he teaches The Kominsky Method. Michael Douglas playing an ageing actor who now lectures younger generations about how to be actors? If it sounds self-indulgent and a little too knowing, that’s because it is: Chuck Lorre’s series can’t decide whether it wants to be a playful Hollywood sitcom or a bleak drama about the elderly. It’s possible to be both, of course, but The Kominsky Method is proof that the possible can still be trick to pull off.
Douglas and Arkin are absolutely wonderful, twinkling with bitter charm, bristling with barely concealed rage and fuelled by a combination of loathing of others, disdain for what they’ve become, and grief for what they’ve left behind. Douglas leans into his toilet humour with aplomb and just the right amount of awkward grit – his trip to the doctor sees him play deadpan against a gleefully inappropriate urologist, played by Danny DeVito. Arkin, meanwhile, conveys decades of pain through his hoarse vocals, dropping one-liners more often than Sandy has to drop his Y-fronts.
But their chemistry is dampened every time its sparks venture beyond the bathroom or Norman’s car and into the real world. Because Lorre, whose CV includes The Big Bang Theory and Cybill as well as the limp Netflix sitcom Disjointed, is so busy crafting a showcase for his leading duo that he forgets to write the rest of the show. The result is an ensemble of supporting characters who all feel like two-dimensional stereotypes. There’s Norman’s daughter, Phoebe (Lisa Edelstein), whose substance addiction is treated as a punchline. There’s Sandy’s daughter, Mindy (Sarah Baker), who might as well as be his put-upon partner – if it weren’t for the fact that this role is being lined up for Lisa (Nancy Travis), the only mature student in Sandy’s acting class. Her defining trait? She has a rude teenage son.
Sandy’s gaggle of students, meanwhile, are even shallower, from the stock gay one, the stock black one and the stock privileged white one. One scene attempts to address political correctness, identity appropriation and taking offence, but only does so by having Sandy dismiss all of them in one wave of his hand, relegating them to nothing more than cardboard cut-outs for Arkin and Douglas to bounce dialogue off. “You want to get offended, try cancerous glands in your asshole,” quips Sandy, before moving on. It might have been an interesting debate, were the show actually interested in having one, rather than teeing up the topic just so Kominsky can land an easy joke.
The result is a frustrating waste of people such as Travis, who brings a warmth and wisdom to her world-weary partner, and Edelstein, whose Phoebe carries pathos beneath her troublemaking behaviour, but is told to put down the pathos before it threatens to develop into an actual character. Even a memorial service halfway through is interrupted for a cameo by Jay Leno, which seems to have less to do with Norman’s media connections and more to do with stopping people from peeking behind the show’s scenery at the lack of substance. Douglas and Arkin are clearly enjoying themselves as two believably old friends, and it’s rare that TV stares mortality in the face so bluntly and honestly, but look past that and this witty two-man show is playing to an empty room.
The Kominsky Method is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.