Some very significant Wednesday night comings and goings in what has turned out to be an incredibly busy TV week. We welcome back an old sitcom Friend with conflicted emotions, but there's no doubting our enthusiasm for the return of a certain soft-talking, fast-shooting U.S. Marshal, and there's no hiding our sorrow as we bid farewell to a modern classic about small-town Americana and the game of life (also: football).
Want more Matt Roush? Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!
Let's start with the new. Although I wish there was more that felt new about Matthew Perry's tepid comeback vehicle, Mr. Sunshine, which exists under a hazy cloud cover of mixed signals. Is this a character comedy about a man in mid-life crisis trying to learn how to connect? Is it a workplace comedy where zanies rule the sometimes literally circus-like atmosphere? Is it a romantic comedy? (On the latter point, let's hope so, because Perry's elusively ambivalent love interest is Andrea Anders, the charming deserves-a-hit co-star of the much-missed Better Off Ted and The Class and, ironically enough, Joey opposite Perry's former cohort Matt LeBlanc.)
Set in the hectic back offices and corridors of a San Diego sports arena, the Sunshine Center, the show basically presents Perry as a wry straight man (named Ben Donovan) reacting with arched eyebrows and sardonic quips to the insanity around him, even as he's continually reminded of how closed off he has been to those who care about him. "No one is the answer for you because you only think about yourself," he's told. Not exactly a knee-slapping moment.
Much of the crazy comic relief is provided by his wealthy and wacky boss Crystal (The West Wing's Allison Janney), a manically pill-popping dilettante whose political incorrectness regarding race and class knows no bounds. As Ben rushes around putting out her fires, he's also saddled with finding a job for her estranged and certifiably strange son Roman (Nate Torrence), a cheerfully clumsy nincompoop. Ben's perky assistant Heather (Portia Doubleday) has exactly one character trait: She once set a boyfriend on fire, a fact that rattles Ben to no end. That's the kind of joke that gets old even on the first hearing. And that's part of the problem with Mr. Sunshine's anything-goes brand of humor. It feels a little desperate.
So while there are clowns wielding axes (and terrifying Crystal at the worst possible public moment) and a literal elephant in the room, with all of the slapstick chaos elegantly directed by old pro Thomas Schlamme, Mr. Sunshine never really comes into focus. I'm regarding this as a work in progress, and am hoping it finds its way in weeks to come the way Cougar Town quickly did — which unfortunately is being bumped off the schedule for two months to make way for this tryout. Monica out, Chandler in? Makes a good headline, but Perry's got some work to do to earn a place on this terrific night of comedy.
The best news of the night — besides the return of "Clive Bixby" on Modern Family, as Phil once again attempts to woo Claire with his suave alter ego — is on cable, as FX launches a second season of Kentucky fried shenanigans with its very best current series: Justified, the wry, dry and my-oh-my-is-it-fun crime drama that's so riveting it could curl your whiskers.
Buoyed by the effortless charisma of Timothy Olyphant's star turn as the laconic but lethal Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, this series is a twisted triumph. You want Mom and apple pie? Meet Mags Bennett (the terrific Margo Martindale), the fearsomely frumpy matriarch of a pot-peddling crime clan, who serves up apple-laced moonshine. Occasionally with a side of poison.
In the season opener, Raylan steps into a hornet's nest of folksy malice while tracking down a sex offender in the Bennetts' employ named Jimmy Earl Dean — "Three first names, triple winner right off the bat," Raylan muses. As he crosses paths with these casually sadistic backwoods Borgias (including Lost's Jeremy Davies), we know no good can come from this. Only good TV.
When he isn't felling felons and trying to avoid the paperwork, Raylan is busy juggling heaps of personal baggage, including a crooked dad (Raymond J. Barry) on house arrest, an amorous ex-wife (Natalie Zea) who says, "That's what a girl wants to hear for pillow talk: regret," and childhood friend-gone-wrong Boyd Crowder (the electrifying Walton Goggins), who appears to have gone straight. But for how long?
Justified is expert at taking the audience by delightful surprise, lulling you with its laid-back attitude, only to jolt you off the couch with a shock of grisly mayhem. But unlike many of its dramatic FX peers, the tone isn't gloomy or nihilistic or cynical. It's a blast.
Finally, a few thoughts regarding the end of Friday Night Lights, which wraps a five-season run on DirecTV tonight. (The full final season will be shown on NBC starting April 15, and the DVD will be released earlier on April 4.) How ironic that in the same week when the Super Bowl played to the biggest audience in TV history, this gem for the ages, about a Texas town finding glory and purpose through football, bows out so quietly. But with such dignity.
Because so much of the potential audience has yet to see this season play out, I can't get into the specific conflicts and emotional cliffhangers that fuel this thoroughly satisfying and plus-sized (a full hour minus commercials) series finale. Let me just say that as I watched it reluctantly, unwilling to believe this series was actually coming to an end, I came up with my own slogan: Wet eyes. Broken hearts. How else can a fan be expected to respond to saying (sob) goodbye to such a rich cast of believably flesh-and-blood characters? We may hate that this beautifully realized drama about small-town America, about football and family and honor, is throwing its last Hail Mary. But the Christmastime setting, adding a sentimental tug to the busy goings-on, reminds us what a gift these last few years in Dillon, Texas have been. (If DirecTV had not come to the rescue, we almost certainly would not have been treated to these final three seasons.)
[MILD SPOILER ALERT] In the episode, change is afoot as TV's most endearing and unaffectedly sexy married couple, Coach Eric and Tami Taylor (the sublime Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) face a personal crossroads while Coach's underdog Lions head to the state championship in their last hurrah. Familiar faces return, at least one bringing a surprise twist with emotional aftershocks.
As the story gives ample heart-tugging closure while assuring us that life goes on in Dillon and beyond, we bid farewell gratefully, with lump in throat and the conviction that this is one town and one show we'll never forget. When future generations discover this timeless modern classic with clear eyes and full hearts, they'll likely wonder how Friday Night Lights wasn't a bigger hit. For those who embraced it, no show burns brighter. Well played, Dillon.
If you love Friday Night Lights, do not miss tvguide.com's wonderful three-part oral history featuring the show's producers and stars, recapturing its proud and too-fleeting history.