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NBC’s ‘About a Boy’ aims to be a comedy with feeling

Tribune-Review
| Friday, February 21, 2014 6:06 p.m
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John Russo/NBC
'About a Boy' starts (from left) Benjamin Stockham as Marcus, Minnie Driver as Fiona, and David Walton as Will.

NBC’s “About a Boy” raises an interesting question. Which character is the boy?

The comedy (previewing at 11 p.m. Feb. 22, after the Olympics) features a 30-something man-child, self-indulgent Will (David Walton), whose world is complicated when an 11-year-old child-man Marcus (Benjamin Stockham), moves in next door with his controlling mother, Fiona (Minnie Driver).

Each “boy” needs the other, Walton says of the neighbors.

“Marcus really needs a dad and a man in his life and, through this sort of twist of fate, it’s this ill-equipped ‘child,’ ” Walton says during a break on the Universal Studios lot.

“All Will really wants to do is watch TV, play video games, eat meat, go through his hedonistic routine. But there’s an emptiness in that kind of life that is based in a lack of meaning,” he explains.” When this little boy comes along, it’s annoying … but, ultimately, it’s like carbonating these feelings of what’s really important in life. And loving someone and family are way up there. In a way, this weird family is forming, and Will doesn’t even know it.”

“Boy,” which moves to its regular time slot at 9 p.m. Feb. 25, is based on Nick Hornby’s 1998 novel, which spawned the 2002 Hugh Grant movie.

Although the series shares the basic DNA of the Will-Marcus relationship, it differs in geography, trading London for San Francisco; in Will’s source of income, royalties from his hit Christmas song, instead of his father’s; and in the mental state of Fiona, who isn’t suicidal and has a more substantial role than mere antagonist. The series also burns through much of the book’s plot in its first episode.

Executive producer Jason Katims is approaching “Boy” as he has his critically praised TV adaptations of other big-screen features for NBC, “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood.” With “Parenthood,” “honoring what the movie was was really important, but almost more important was breaking new ground and making the show our own. And we really wanted to do that with this,” he says. He also wanted to try a half-hour comedy, with feeling.

“The thing that really appealed to me was doing a show that was funny but that also had heart, and you cared about the characters,” he says.

Adds Walton: “Part of the goal is to be very real and have the comedy come out of these real moments and (be) less about jokes,” he says.

In an episode filmed last week, Will tries to arrange a party to woo a doctor (Adrianne Palicki of “Lights”), while Fiona is dealing with Marcus’ dissatisfaction at being picked as slopmaster (which is just as it sounds) in a Dickensian mini-society at his school. Will tries to placate the boy with money and presents, upsetting Fiona.

Their opposing personalities and approaches merge into an “incredibly awkward symbiosis” that helps Marcus chart a good course forward in life, Driver says.

“We’re sort of at odds, and the kid is in the middle,” Driver says. “You have a topic, and one person thinks about that topic one way, and the other person thinks the absolute opposite, and (the show explores) how the child synthesizes between the two of them.”

Marcus, whose naivete can lead to middle-school missteps, needs both adults, says 13-year-old Benjamin.

“I guess he could be considered uncool, but I think he’s cool in his own little way. He really cares for his mother, and Will thinks of him as a good influence,” Benjamin says. Although Marcus may pick up some bad habits from his neighbor, and some decidedly unhip behavior from his mother, “what’s best is what he gets from both of them together. He gets his curiosity and his boldness. In each episode,” he says, “Marcus gets more and more mature.”

Bill Keveney is a staff writer for USA Today.

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