Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy? Judging by evidence presented over the past 50 years or so, the answer is decidedly no...but thankfully they keep on trying.
The Odd Couple, starring Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon as, respectively, sloppy sportscaster Oscar Madison and fastidious photographer Felix Unger, is wrapping up its second season just as it's been renewed for a third. The concept, created by playwright Neil Simon for the Broadway stage in 1965, is summed up by the author's original description of it: "Two men, one divorced and one estranged and neither quite sure why their marriages fell apart, move in together to cut down on their alimony and suddenly discover that they're having the same conflicts and fights they had in their marriages."
That play, which initially starred Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix, spawned the 1968 film with Matthau and Jack Lemmon, the 1970-75 TV series with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, 1982's The New Odd Couple starring Demond Wilson and Ron Glass, 1998's Odd Couple II feature film reuniting Matthau and Lemmon, and, now, the Perry/Lennon pairing.
Bob Daily, who serves as the new show's executive producer, points to a history of TV sitcoms with the DNA of The Odd Couple embedded in it. "Two And A Half Men was basically The Odd Couple with a kid," he muses. "I worked on Frasier for years. Frasier was Felix and his dad was Oscar. The pairing of those two characters is so iconic. One of the things that's so appealing about it, and one of the things that's been fun as we break stories, is that it's about two guys who sort of complete each other in a weird way. They are each half of the perfect man together. And yet they will never quite master the other side, which is why you can do a series and keep it going for a long time."
The challenge at the start was ensuring that this version was similar yet unique from those that had come before, which was not easily achieved. Lennon describes season one as finding its footing, while year two has been made up of more "powerhouse, genuinely hilarious" episodes. "The first season, starting up, was complicated," he reflects. "We shot the pilot a couple of times, we kept tweaking things and finding our footing as we discovered what worked."
Part of the tweaking came in adjusting the format itself by expanding the stories beyond Oscar and Felix. While the '70s show certainly had supporting characters, this take has created much more of a full ensemble. "We could not, nor would you want to, change Oscar and Felix," says Daily, "but changing the people around them was a way to make it more contemporary. And when people like Wendell Pierce, Lindsay Sloane and Nicole Brown became available, we were able to tailor those parts to them. So, now, we've made it much more of the feeling of an ensemble with Oscar and Felix being a little greater among equals."
Pierce plays Oscar's agent, Teddy; Yvette Nicole Brown is his secretary, Dani; and Lindsay Sloane is Felix's girlfriend, the eccentric Emily. While all have been fairly fleshed out, Emily went from pining for Felix to becoming his girlfriend fairly quickly in season one rather than stretching things out, as most sitcoms are wont to do. This year has explored their romantic relationship more fully - filled with quirks that drive them crazy yet draw them closer. Indeed, romance has come and gone for Oscar as well, most notably in the form of the recurring Teri Hatcher as Charlotte.
For her part, Sloane also thought things would be stretched out longer, but realized that a more practical approach needed to be taken in season one. "By nature of being a midseason show and not really having any job security, the writers saw the chemistry so quickly and thought, 'Why postpone the inevitable?'" she laughs. "I also feel that as the Felix and Emily relationship has grown, so has my relationship with Tom. We're so comfortable with each other and so in sync and so weirdly similar, that it just helps every aspect of what we're doing."
Adds Lennon, "I don't know why they told us this, but right after the pilot had been filmed and tested they said, 'You know what people really love? Is when the two nerds sit together and talk about their bad sinus passages and that they go to the same allergist.' I thought there was something really sweet about these two people; that the love between them blooms out of neurosis."
While the exploration of romance on the show is entertaining, the bottom line is no relationship can go too far or the odd couple itself is no more. Daily admits that is a tricky thing to work around, which means that there always has to be an exit strategy in place. That being said, he points out, "I do think a big part of the show is and always will be these two guys helping each other navigate the world of dating, because they haven't been dating for twenty years while they were married. But the ultimate 'romance' is between Oscar and Felix."
And one of The Odd Couple's secret weapons is creative consultant Garry Marshall, who served as writer and executive producer of the Klugman/Randall series (as well as Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy among many others) and is involved with this show on far more than a contractual level. As Daily explains it, Marshall came to the writers' room during the first month of preproduction last year stating that he would not be accepting a check without earning it. And earn it he has.
"My only concern about Garry coming in was wondering if he would be saying things like, 'That's not how we did it in the old version,'" Daily says. "But he has completely given us free reign to reinvent the show, while suggesting things. He's the one who said he felt the best episodes when he was doing it was when Oscar taught Felix something or vice-versa. That idea immediately gave rise to an episode this season where it establishes Felix as a lifelong New Yorker who, like many lifelong New Yorkers, never learned how to drive. But now that he's dating Emily and she's always driving, he wants to learn how, so Oscar has to teach Felix how to drive."
Lennon notes that at every taping Marshall stands next to the cameras and he'll talk to the cast after each take. "There was a moment when I felt Garry embraced me in the role of Felix," he smiles. "He went from someone who admits he had no idea who I was when I showed up the first day (he thought I was the craft service guy) to coming up to me and saying, 'You're killing it.' That was pretty amazing. It was then that I started to feel the right to play this character. So we're growing into it, I think. We're still standing in giant shoes, but we're getting there."
The Odd Couple airs on CBS in America.