Poor Kelsey Grammer. The guy’s had a rough go at finding an appropriate or successful gig since his 20-year stint playing Frasier Crane came to an end in 2004. In the last ten years, he’s had two failed sitcoms (Back to You and Hank) and a respectable, if ultimately unsuccessful foray into drama (Boss). Part of the problem is that Grammer’s been so closely identified by Frasier that it’s difficult for audiences to see him anything else. Sarah Silverman talked about her mother’s love of Grammer saying she appreciated his “love for diction,” to which the comedienne had to respond, “He’s not Frasier.” But playing the lovably pompous psychiatrist on Cheers for 8 seasons, plus another 11 years on the classic spin-off Fraiser has left a permanent mark on the audiences. And reviewing Grammer’s various comeback attempts show that despite being a brilliant and hilarious comedian, he is also a pretty limited performer who definitely works within a comfort zone.
And in his newest sitcom (his third since Fraiser‘s end) Partners, Grammer does another variation on his self-involved snob. Pairing him with comedian Martin Lawrence – on paper – sounds like an inspired idea. After all, Lawrence is an explosive and exciting talent. On his much-beloved FOX sitcom Martin (1992 – 1997), Lawrence brought his high-energy comedy to millions of audiences. Since the end of his sitcom, he seemed to have an easier time of maintaining a career than his costar. He starred in a string of successful big screen comedies (Big Momma’s House, Bad Boys II, Big Momma’s House 2, Wild Hogs, College Road Trip), though his box office returns have diminished. So a big TV hit would’ve been perfect right about now.
With two such talented actors, Partners should’ve worked. The Odd Couple-like story is a threadbare trope, but with the right elements, it could still be fun. But Partners isn’t fun. It’s boring and depressing because of the talent involved. The story has two lawyers, Allen Braddock (Grammer) who joins Marcus Jackson (Lawrence) after being fired from his father’s firm. Allen is yet another arrogant fussbudget that Grammer can play in his sleep. Marcus, however, is a little more interesting because he’s a civil rights attorney and a community organizer. Of course Allen’s corporate background will inevitably lead to clashes with his new partners, but like in all great buddy comedies, the two predictably settle into a friendship.
The main problem with Partners is that while it wants to believe it’s hip and cutting edge, it’s remarkably dated. I’m not a huge fan of multi-camera sitcoms, and I hate laugh tracks, which is all the more unbearable when a chorus of loud and forced laughter rains during punchlines that are delivered with broad gusto. And a lot of the jokes deal with race and homosexuality, but are so toothless, they would’ve seemed edgy back in 1995 when Will & Grace was thought of as trailblazing television.
But all of that could be forgiven if Lawrence and Grammer were working at their peak – after all, both are so talented and likable, that they could elevate even the most mundane material. Unfortunately, Grammer’s performance is distractingly one-note. His performance is essentially Frasier, only less likable and not as funny. As Marcus, Lawrence is better, though strangely subdued. He lends some gravitas, but it always feels as if he’s slumming. The only cast member who manages to shine is sitcom vet Telma Hopkins, who is amusing as Marcus’s mother.
Partners is FX’s latest attempt at doing what TV Land has been doing for about five years now – taking formerly hot TV actors and placing them in strangely retro vehicles. Some of the channel’s other original programs are more original, but Partners feels like Anger Management and the failed George Lopez sitcom Saint George (apparently, former King of Queens star Kevin James also has an upcoming show for the cable channel). Partners squanders some great talent, both of whom would be welcomed back to TV if they were given proper outlets for their gifts – Partners doesn’t do that.