This week's gold-medal question: Can NBC reverse its spotty track record when it comes to using the ratings boost of the Olympics to launch new programs? (Remember the Summer 2012 debacle when the network interrupted the flow of London's Closing Ceremony to inflict Animal Practice on an unwilling captive audience?)
The news is better this weekend, during the closing nights of the Games. The comedies getting a sneak peek are considerably more entertaining than Animal Practice — what wouldn't be? — and they won't air until after that night's Olympics packages are finished.
First up is NBC's best new comedy of the season (including the star-driven disappointments that flopped on Thursdays this fall): About a Boy, airing Saturday night at approximately 11/10c before moving to its regular time period next Tuesday at 9/8c. This charmingly offbeat bromance, adapted by Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) from the Nick Hornby novel and subsequent Hugh Grant movie, is a sweet yet tart character study of irrepressible man-child Will Freeman (David Walton, of last year's too-short-lived Bent), who reluctantly finds himself bonding with the awkwardly precocious 11-year-old nerd-next-door Marcus (Benjamin Stockham, who undercuts the too-cuteness with an old-soul wryness).
Little Marcus is further handicapped by a New Agey single mom, Fiona, whose vegan self-righteousness is assaulted by Will's backdoor barbecue smoke cloud — and she's none too impressed by the harem of babes this carefree songwriter welcomes through his revolving front door. Fiona is rather a thankless character, but Minnie Driver works hard to humanize the neurotic stereotype and mostly succeeds.
Walton, a longtime TV-star-in-the-making with several quickly failed sitcoms on his résumé, may finally have found the role that puts him over the top. He and About a Boy are at its best in those disarming moments when Will lets down his guard and faces his grown-up responsibilities to teach Marcus how to enjoy the "total exuberance" of boyhood.
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The main reason to tune in to Boy's companion piece Growing Up Fisher (Sunday, approximately 10:30/9:30c; then Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30c) is to appreciate the range of ace character actor J.K. Simmons, who has made his mark previously on TV as a memorable heavy on HBO's OZ, a sympathetic shrink on Law & Order and a gruff authority figure on The Closer, to name a few. In this indulgently autobiographical fractured-family sitcom, he plays father figure Mel Fisher, whose blindness somehow adds to his insight as a parent — and lawyer, an arena where he has been able to fool most people into thinking he can see right through them.
Mel's eccentric independence is admirable and more often than not amusing — which isn't always the case for the show, which uses gentle but forced whimsy to deliver treacly life lessons from the perspective of preteen son Henry (Eli Baker). Henry's reflections are heard in voice-over narration by Jason Bateman — but why is he addressing us from the future, since the show is set in the present? How and why does he already know how all of this turns out? Wish it were easier to care, as things get messy when mom Joyce (Jenna Elfman) decides to divorce Mel during her own midlife crisis. Little Henry can't fathom why this is happening, and since Mel is the life of this particular party, neither can we.
ABBEY ROAD: "I'm too tired for an evening of second-hand emotion," sighs the invaluable Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) in the fourth-season finale of Downton Abbey (Sunday, 9/8c on PBS, check tvguide.com listings). She's begging off an invitation to the theater, but we know how she feels. It's hard not to empathize with that sentiment, given how unsatisfying much of this season's contrived melodrama has been. If you thought all of the Anna-Bates hand-wringing was poorly played, which it was, that almost pales next to the spectacle of watching various members of the Crawley household scramble as if they were participating in a slamming-door farce, desperate to protect a member of the royal family from a scandal they may have inadvertently instigated. Second-hand intrigue, more like. At least we're spared (anti-spoiler alert) a numbing twist like last year's let's-kill-Matthew climax.
Joining the party from America, as annoyingly flighty Rose plans her debutante coming-out in London: Shirley MacLaine (as Cora's snooty mother Martha Levinson) and Paul Giamatti (as her grouchy brother Harold, ducking financial scandal abroad). They bring along an unusually outspoken young manservant who immediately raises Old Carson's wacky hackles: "Have you lost your mind? You're a footman, not a traveling salesman! Please keep your opinion on the catering to yourself." Moments like these are why even bad plotting doesn't dampen my affection for Downton.
For every moment I squirm as Mrs. Hughes frets over whether Bates may have killed Anna's attacker in London, I swoon whenever Violet tangles with her frenemy Isobel (Penelope Wilton): "Can't you even offer help without sounding like a trumpeter on the peak of the moral high ground?" barks Violet as they frostily share a carriage. To which Isobel fires back: "Must you always sound like the sister of Marie Antoinette?" Who needs Real Housewives when we have these grandes dames to amuse us?
AND KEEP IN MIND: The 45th NAACP Image Awards airs live Saturday on TV One (9/8c) from Pasadena, with Anthony Anderson hosting, Oprah Winfrey paying tribute to Nelson Mandela, Stevie Wonder performing and Winfrey's Butler co-star Forest Whitaker receiving the Chairman's Award. ... BBC America's 19th-century crime drama Ripper Street returns for a second and (for now) final season (Saturday, 10/9c) with more dirty doings in the treacherous Whitechapel district. ... As a warm-up to Sunday's Closing Ceremony in Sochi, NBC presents Nancy & Tonya (7/6c), Mary Carillo's report on the infamous skating rivalry that galvanized viewers and spiked ratings 20 years ago in Lillehammer. The special includes interviews with Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, neither of whom is likely to ever live this story down. ... It's another "all-star" edition of CBS's The Amazing Race (8/7c), with some teams returning for a third go-round, which feels excessive. ... The challenge for TNT's Dallas in its third season, which starts Monday, is how to stimulate interest with J.R. Ewing (the irreplaceable Larry Hagman) no longer in the picture. Relive happier nasty times when a marathon of the first two seasons begins Sunday at 8/7c, continuing right up to the new season's premiere Monday at 9/8c.