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‘The Crazy Ones’ Review: Selling Out With Robin Williams

A show that asks us to root for a past his-prime ad man trying to get a pop star to sexily hawk hamburgers

Robin Williams spent years as one of only two actors on my Will Not Watch List, a special place for actors who’ve made too many manipulative feel-good movies. Kevin Spacey was the other actor on the list, and thanks to “House of Cards,” he’s off. I really like him now.

Williams got off the list a few years ago with a low-key, emotionally honest interview on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast. I’m glad, because that allowed me to watch his curious new CBS sitcom, “The Crazy Ones.” There’s something good about the show, and I think it’s the sweet, awkward dynamic between Williams’ ad man, Simon Roberts, and his daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who has joined him in advertising.

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But there’s a lot that’s bad, starting with the show’s annoying slickness. Advertisers have managed to create a myth, with their cool glasses and film-school degrees, that they are as much artists as, well, actual artists. In truth, there are many kinds of advertisers. There are geniuses in their chosen field who do odd jobs to make money while they pursue their real dreams. (“House of Cards” director David Fincher is a great example.) There are people who flat-out love to sell and do it brilliantly. And then, of course, there are total sell-outs.

All play important roles in our society. But after watching “Crazy Ones,” I don’t know what kind of advertisers Simon and Sidney Roberts are. They just seem like people who want to keep their jobs. So does everyone, so that’s not a very exciting motivation. To the extent that I’m rooting for them, it’s only because I like the actors playing them.

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In the pilot, their fates depend on keeping McDonald’s as a client. To do it, they have to recruit Kelly Clarkson, playing herself, to sing a sexed-out burger jingle.

Will you indulge me another personal prejudice? I don’t want to see McDonald’s sell more burgers. Great as their fries are – and I don’t know how they make Diet Coke taste so good – McDonald’s does some bad things in terms of the environment, the mechanizing of our society, the exploitation of two- and four-legged animals. Sure, they have a right to exist. But I don’t have to like them.

I’m also tired of seeing my pop stars sell products instead of songs. In a better, less cynical show, the peppy singer would be working against the multinational fast-food giant instead of for it. The ad types trying to recruit her would be bad guys.

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Wait, you say. I’ll bet you like “Mad Men,” you dopey hypocrite. I do. And I am. But “Mad Men” is about people who know their clients are bad, and think about it once in a while. They drink and philander and muddle their way through. They kind of hate themselves. They’re fascinating.

In the “Crazy Ones” pilot, Roberts and Roberts seem to be making day-to-day decisions to hang on to a pretty opulent way of life, without qualms. Again, that’s their right, but I don’t have to like it.

Am I judging TV characters? No. I’m judging show creator David E. Kelley for not giving them more dimensions. I could root for a guy who uses his creative gifts for money if I understood why he was doing it.

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Take Williams, for example. He’s said he went back to TV for the money after two divorces. No problem. I accept that. I love his honesty.

But I just find it hard to care about the guy he’s playing on “The Crazy Ones.” I think Simon would be better off if he lost his big-money job and devoted himself to something better than making people feel hungry for a Big Mac.

Simon is a little pathetic – he’s a giant child – but everyone considers him kind of a modern-day Don Draper, albeit one who may be past his prime. The most endearing thing about him is how much he loves his daughter. And so the family relationship is the best part of “Crazy Ones,” even though Williams and Gellar’s chemistry feels a little bit off.

This may sound weird, but I want them to hug more, so I can feel more familiarity. Actually, I want any kind of warmth on “The Crazy Ones.”

None of the above problems would be problems if I were laughing so hard through “The Crazy Ones” that I didn’t have time to stop and think. But I did. The show just isn’t very funny. Other comedies have been able to overcome this problem – “Big Bang Theory,” for instance – by being nice and cute. But “Crazy Ones” is neither.

The show leans very heavily on Williams – or caters to Williams, I can’t tell – by having him do his usual fast-talking funny voices routine. You know: the thing he’s most famous for that is also the worst thing he does. Watch “Good Will Hunting” or “Dead Poets Society” and you’ll see a brilliant actor with a huge heart. Watch Williams on Comic Relief and you’ll see a guy trying to help. Watch “Crazy Ones” and you see a guy who’s made his own bed. I’m probably ascribing Simon Roberts more likability than he’s earned, simply because of my memories of past Williams roles.

James Wolk, who plays another ad exec on “Crazy Ones,” was brilliant on “Mad Men” as Bob Benson, a scrappy, desperate con man who whores himself into steady gigs. Now that was a great character. Wolk practically stole the sixth season of that masterful show.

Here, he’s just another yuppie showing Clarkson how easy it is to sell out. It happens in a scene where he and Williams riff on fast food innuendos. God, it’s dumb.

We know it’s easy to sell out. How about a show about someone who won’t?

“The Crazy Ones” premieres at 9/8c Thursday on CBS.