Matthew Perry portrays Ben Donovan in "Mr. Sunshine," premiering… (Michael Desmond / ABC )
Matthew Perry returns to series television Wednesday night as co-creator and star of the ABC single-camera sitcom "Mr. Sunshine." For insurance, he has brought along producer Jamie Tarses, who helped develop "Friends," on which Perry starred for a generation, and Thomas Schlamme, who directed and produced Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," Perry's last-known television address. Not surprisingly, what they arrived at combines the extreme characters of a traditional wacky workplace comedy with the big-canvas naturalism of the Sorkin shows. As expressed in the pilot, it's not altogether an easy fit, but it shows promise.
Perry stars as Ben Donovan, the manager of a San Diego sports arena and, as on "Friends," is surrounded by birds of more colorful plumage, which can make him seem a bit the dull one. But he's working hard, at the center of every scene. We regard the world not exactly from his point of view, but over his shoulder, removed enough to see how he fits into his misconception of things. Alienated and alienating, he directs people who follow his orders without being impressed while having to bend to the whims of his own boss, pill-gobbling arena owner Crystal (Allison Janney).
As the show begins, on Ben's 40th birthday, his keeping the world at arm's length no longer seems such a good plan. (There is a warm heart beating deep at this series' center.) The catalyst, apart from a barrage of critical expository dialogue aimed his way by fellow characters, is the end of a "friends with benefits" affair with marketing director Alice (Andrea Anders): "I thought we were the same," he says, disappointed. "When you told me you were emotionally broken, I believed you." Anders was the designated human-with-feelings on ABC's icy, dry, office-space comedy "Better Off Ted," and she is a bright light here as well.
It's a busy opening, including brief but satisfying guest appearances by Jorge "Hurley" Garcia and an elephant. The show is well played down to the smallest parts: Portia Doubleday as Ben's new assistant (who once "set fire to a man") does a lot with her handful of lines. As a rich woman living in her own private cloud, Janney is required at times to be impossibly ignorant of the real world, but she steers clear of one-note weirdness with fresh readings; she's physically funny as well in small, unexpected ways. Playing her half-acknowledged idiot son, Nate Torrence also does more with his part than the part promises.
There is something about middle age that suits Perry; it is almost as if he has been waiting his whole career for those bags to be parked under his eyes. Some of his time during and after "Friends" was also taken up with drugs and drinking, and I don't want to say that these things have seasoned him — because, kids, they are bad for you — but all in all the mileage has done him a favor, and it's easy to read his new series' story of delayed maturity as a rewriting of the star's own. It's not a bad way to begin again.
When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)