Class clowns can have potential but giggles don’t get passing grades.
This is certainly the case with NBC’s chuckle-worthy but rudderless new sitcom “Mr. Robinson,” which debuts Wednesday. Comedian Craig Robinson (“The Office” and “Hot Tub Time Machine”) stars as a night-club performer who teaches a music class at his alma mater by day for extra money. He also hopes to rekindle a romance with the school’s pretty English teacher Victoria (Meagan Good, “Think Like a Man”) — the one who got away.
Laughs abound when Robinson, who as in real life is in a band called Nasty Delicious, sings silly but catchy tunes filled with double entendres. In the pilot, it’s a song called “Chocolate Muffins” and in episode three there’s another titled “Funk House.”
“Mr. Robinson” also exhibits glimmers of comedic hope when Craig first meets his new boss, Principal Eileen Taylor (Peri Gilpin, “Frasier”), and she reams him for his over-inflated swagger and lack of career commitment. “I like Biggie, I hate Diddy and you don’t even register,” Principal Taylor scoffs, promptly and humorously putting Craig in his place.
Robinson and Gilpin are well supported and viewers should expect noteworthy and comedic performances from Brandon T. Jackson (“Tropic Thunder”), who plays Craig’s goofy band mate and brother Ben, as well as Tim Bagley (“Knocked Up”) and Benjamin Koldyke (“Work It”).
Bagley costars as school supervisor Dalton and Koldyke plays a one-time tennis star turned gym teacher named Jimmy. And Amandla Stenberg (“The Hunger Games”), Dante Brown and Ethan Josh Lee (“Mortal Kombat”) bring youthful charisma as Craig’s snarky but sweet students.
There’s even a priceless guest turn from Gary Cole (“Veep,” “Office Space”) as an aged rocker who dangles a record contract in Craig’s direction.
But for every charming and genuinely funny moment — and there is a fair amount — there is a lazy sitcom trope that stunts “Mr. Robinson” and depletes it of its promise.
Will Craig choose teaching or music? Will Principal Taylor find Mr. Pickles, the lost dog she’s babysitting for her boss before he returns? Can Craig, his fellow teachers and the children save the school from layoffs?
Good’s role as the high-school sweetheart Robinson stood up at the prom seems odd considering the 10-year age difference between the actors. Clearly, Good has the physical goods to turn heads. Why not just make her an ex-girlfriend?
Making matters worse, like its hero, “Mr. Robinson” doesn’t know which path to take. Sometimes the show feels like a teen-sitcom akin to “Saved By the Bell” and at other times it resembles “The Steve Harvey Show.” There’s hints of “School of Rock” and “Glee,” when the kids sing, and more than a few nods to “Welcome Back Kotter.”
The problem is, “Mr. Robinson” is too raunchy for the Saturday-morning teen set — Spencer Grammer plays a math teacher who moonlights as a stripper, for instance — and too cuddly for primetime. With so much going on, it’s difficult to determine who the comedy’s target audience is.
“Mr. Robinson” has the potential to become a stronger, more focused show. Robinson’s lovable style and chemistry with Good, Jackson and the series’ teen actors is undeniable. But with a truncated, six-episode run, it’s hard to conceive that there will be enough time and viewership to turn things around for a second-season pickup. What a waste.
“Mr. Robinson” premieres Wednesday Aug. 5 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.