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C'mon, give the girl a sporting chance

`My Boys' lead needs to be more than just one of the guys for audiences to invest in this team.

July 29, 2007|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

THAT P.J. Franklin (Jordana Spiro) makes a great girlfriend, no? She's plucky, accessibly attractive and unreasonably into sports. Sure, she's a baseball beat writer for a Chicago daily, but her ardor isn't limited to the Cubs. She'll watch the Bears or the Blackhawks too, and then host a poker game at her not-too-frilly apartment. Perfect, no?

Most crucially, she would never, ever leave you for one of her bros. At the end of the first season of "My Boys," P.J. was in amorous lip lock with Brendan (Reid Scott), one of her all-male circle of friends. At the outset of the second season, which returns Monday (TBS, 10 p.m.), we find out that, hey, that was awkward. So much so that it wasn't repeated, even though their attraction dated to another errant kiss in college.

More important, it means P.J. is still single, a frat boy's dream catch. But giving hope to sports nebbishes nationwide does not a sitcom make. And "My Boys," which is essentially a gender-tweaked "Sex and the City" right down to the unwieldy metaphor voice-overs (about sports, in this case) that pepper each episode, does its centerpiece a disservice by downplaying her beauty at every turn, including with wardrobe and lighting. That P.J. is one of the boys is clear; that she's something more is not. "My Boys" is as interested in womanhood as "Entourage," another show it recalls. Which is to say: not so much.

P.J. is continually denied complexity -- her make-out session with Brendan could have been a launchpad for a conversation about how to navigate a friendship blooming into romance. Instead, after a couple of awkward encounters -- "Is it time that you grew up and dealt with the fact there are other women in our lives that we would rather spend our time with than you? Because there are, so get used to it," Brendan tells her, with a half-hearted attempt at malice -- the two ebb back to platonic bliss.

On one of Monday's two episodes, P.J. guests on a local sports-talk TV show and is woefully out of place amid the blustery catchphrase-dropping men on the panel. But instead of finding a fresh way of asserting, and inserting, herself into the proceedings, she merely attempts to ape the others, and fails, another feminist opportunity lost.

In fairness, her friends don't ask much more of her. By and large, they're shells too. Brendan is a blandly handsome radio DJ, outfitted in stiff Urban Outfitters rock tees. Kenny (Michael Bunin) is balding and tragic, while Mike (Jamie Kaler) is exuberant and unemployed (he appears to own three items of furniture -- a mattress he bought used, a La-Z-Boy and a flat-screen TV the size of a ping-pong table). Fellow sportswriter Bobby (Kyle Howard) shows some spark, but he too has been neutered after a quick dalliance with P.J. early last season. Denial of sexual urge is the show's central instinct. (P.J. has one female friend, Stephanie [Kellee Stewart], who is boy crazy but unable to infect P.J. with the jones.)

Accordingly, the most vivid character here is the one who could never have romantic tension with P.J.: her brother, Andy, played by Jim Gaffigan, who shows signs of developing into a sitcom heavy. Last season, Andy made significant noise about being persistently harangued by his wife, only to later reveal that he portrayed himself as henpecked so that he could sneak out of poker night early to spend time with his family. It was a bizarre confession, and an honest one, exactly the sort of contrivance cooked up by people struggling to please everyone in their lives.

It was also the rare flash of humanity on the show, though next week, P.J. gets one of her own. After a Cubs player begins pursuing her, P.J. has to make a tough decision regarding their relationship. Sitting alone at the bar, dressed in black and nursing a flute of champagne, she looks like a still from an Edward Hopper painting: pensive, elegant and tragic. It lasts maybe a second before she snaps out of it and posses up with her boys -- P.J. would never tug too long on your heartstrings, or her own.

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