It has been three decades since Robin Williams starred in a sitcom: “Mork and Mindy,” in which Williams played a wacky alien, went off the air in 1982. And now he is back in “The Crazy Ones,” a new CBS comedy from David E. Kelley (also behind “Ally McBeal”) that premiered last night. As advertising executive Simon Roberts, Robin Williams is at his most Robin Williams: the grab-bag impressions, the plasticine facial expressions, the voice like a recording on fast forward. Roberts is the head honcho of a firm where his daughter Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is also a partner. On the verge of losing their biggest client, McDonald’s, the agency is scrambling to come up with an ad campaign that will keep the fast food chain on board. To remind us that somewhere beneath Simon's antics is a kernel of genius, office decor includes a massive portrait of Williams’s character with a single neon lightbulb over his head.
In past years, throughout his widely publicized battles with addiction, Williams has been a standout in roles that are dark and complicated and sad: “Good Will Hunting,” “World’s Greatest Dad.” There is something a bit grim about seeing him play the clown now, with a sitcom’s compressed jokiness, after all the intervening years of turmoil. But if “The Crazy Ones” illustrates the limits of Williams’ shtick, it also illustrates the limits of the comic potential of advertising agencies. In one of the pilot’s central scenes, Simon sells a room full of skeptical McDonald’s executives on a concept for a burger ad. His zaniness suddenly gives way to earnestness: “I propose we redo that 1972 spot and take a chance on making people feel,” he tells a rapt boardroom, as the music swells. “Food is one thing, but a moment together with family is everything.”
It’s not hard to see why an ad agency appeals from a dramatic perspective. It’s a storytelling factory, cranking out capsules of narrative engineered to pack maximum emotional punch. The act of persuasion becomes a kind of magic. The ad agency turned out to be such a reliable vehicle for drama that AMC produced a reality show called “The Pitch,” pitting top agencies against each other in competitions. It's a perfect context for the noirish self-seriousness of a show like “Mad Men” but perhaps less suited to a sitcom tasked with balancing treacle and self-awareness within a 30 minute time slot. BBC2 had a short-lived ad agency sitcom a few years ago called “The Persuasionists” that aimed to portray ad men as less slick than their counterparts on “Mad Men.” It was cancelled after one season, felled by clichéd dialogue, broadly drawn characters, and generally unfunny jokes.
But there is one great scene in the pilot for “The Crazy Ones." It features Williams and his co-worker Zach (James Wolk, who plays Bob Benson on “Mad Men”) improvising a jingle about hamburgers and sex for Kelly Clarkson, while trying to convince her to appear in a McDonald's ad. They riff on "secret sauce" and "drive-thru lovin." “It’s not the meat, it’s the motion,” they sing, squirting imaginary ketchup packets into their faces. It seems like a vision of what a good sitcom about the advertising world could be—less a spectacle of magic lightbulb moments than a looser, surrealist take on the absurdity of the creative process—and a better use of Williams’s talents than a corny ad pitch to a room full of suits.