Matthew Perry did dark, self-effacing sarcasm long before it became cool. His most memorable tour of duty on network TV — playing Chandler on “Friends” — set the pace for an entire category of sitcom characters with its just-right balance of cynicism and wit. Then, in his next foray — writer Aaron Sorkin’s much-hyped but short-lived “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” — Perry translated that same character to a sophisticated drama, and fared better than expected.

Mr. Sunshine

Pilot
Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m.
ABC

Perry’s latest project, “Mr. Sunshine,” is more of the same — indeed, the caustic title of the show itself is an indication. Perry plays Ben Donovan, manager of a sports arena in San Diego, Calif. Overworked, stressed and bitter to prove it, Ben is surrounded by happier people who all seem to have time in their lives for fun and distractions. As the only one who actually does his job, Ben has to solve the problems everyone else ignores — loose elephants, bratty teenage pop stars and equipment malfunctions among them.

Chronicling the absurd in the everyday operations of a sports arena, the show seems to have all the pieces in place for a laudable distraction. While Perry’s biting sarcasm can run thin at times, it’s well balanced with a couple of memorable characters among the supporting cast. Allison Janney (“The West Wing”) plays Crystal, Ben’s narcotized and obliviously racist boss. And there are also Jorge Garcia (“Lost”) as the building’s facilities manager (apparently named “Bobert”) and Nate Torrence (“Get Smart”), who plays Crystal’s comedically useless son, Roman.

With enough personalities and problems to sustain its premise, “Mr. Sunshine” works relatively well in the role it has apparently appointed itself to fill: a dark comedy that banks on the dark sides of facially pleasant characters. Be it the cute, bubbly secretary who has a secret past involving arson (a superbly cast Portia Doubleday, “Youth in Revolt”) or the ex-basketball player compensating for his failures by trying just a little too hard in the business world (James Lesure, “Las Vegas”), the show manages to find and exploit for comedy the tiny bit of evil that affects every little thing these people do.

Mr. Sunshine follows in the spirit of better shows like “Modern Family” and “30 Rock,” but it lacks the game-changing swagger that made those shows instant classics. Still, given its strategic placement in the timeslot immediately following the wildly popular “Modern Family,” the show should benefit from a reasonable holdover audience while it finds its footing. That factor paired with the many nostalgic “Friends” fans who will tune in, at least initially, should get the show off with enough of a ratings momentum to return for a full season in the fall.

And we should hope that the show does succeed, because, whatever else it may lack, it is an excellent vehicle to showcase the very talented Perry: The man was born to be on network sitcoms, and it’s good to have him back.

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