In the third episode of Netflix’s charming new silver-haired comedy The Kominsky Method, Michael Douglas pees in the hedges outside the home of the woman he’s dating. This could merely be an easy joke at the expense of a senior citizen with less control over his bodily functions than he once had. And to a degree it is. (Later, he tells a friend, “Yesterday, I kissed a woman goodnight, then urinated on her bush.”) But that joke and all the other ones about Douglas’ weak stream — including a proctological reunion with his frequent Eighties co-star Danny DeVito — also illustrates the grace and empathy with which The Kominsky Method handles the mortification of aging.
(The series debuts Friday; I’ve seen all eight episodes.)
Douglas plays Sandy Kominsky, a legendary acting teacher whose own quest for Hollywood glory never amounted to much. (Though Henry Winkler’s character on Barry would envy his relative success.) Alan Arkin is Sandy’s longtime agent and friend Norman Newlander, leaning on Sandy more than ever as he braces himself for the death of his beloved, terminally-ill wife Eileen (Susan Sullivan).
“We are passengers on boats, slowly sinking,” Sandy declares. It is a wise and sad thought, but one prompted by him explaining that lately, if he laughs too hard, he farts a little.
That balance between sentiment and scatology, grief and goofiness, is a tricky one to pull off. But the show’s two Oscar-winning stars(*) are in the excellent hands of sitcom giant Chuck Lorre. Best known for Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory, Lorre also has plenty of experience writing comedies (Mom, Grace Under Fire, Roseanne) where the punchlines, raunchy or otherwise, provide welcome respite from the characters’ difficult situations, while that darkness in turn gives the punchlines greater weight. This is Lorre in his best possible mode, and the single-camera format allows him to pull back on the jokes when they’d just get in the way.
(*) The two have somehow never worked together before, despite breaking into the business within a few years of each other in the Sixties. They even both starred in versions of The In-Laws (Arkin’s is a classic, Douglas’… less so), and if I have a complaint about this show, it’s that Lorre fails to contrive a reason to have the two running in a serpentine manner.
Sandy (who begins flirting with a winning Nancy Travis as one of his older students, Lisa) and Norman (who also has to care for his addict daughter Phoebe, played with slapstick gusto by Lisa Edelstein) are painfully aware that they are both much closer to the end of their lives than the beginning. But the series manages to be blunt about this reality without wallowing in the pain and fear behind it. Some of the stories are heavy (Norman contemplates life without Eileen), some are relatively light (Sandy’s daughter Mindy, played by Sarah Baker, tries to get Norman to bail Sandy out of trouble with the IRS), but most manage to hit the sweet spot where they’re both at once. Late in the first episode, Norman meets Lisa when Sandy brings her with him to the hospital where Eileen has been taken. Norman is in the midst of incredible pain, yet when he sizes up his friend’s lovely and smart new girlfriend and tells her, “You can do better than him,” it feels like the exact kind of deadpan joke he’d make in this moment.
The delivery of that line and so many others is a credit to the impeccable comic timing Arkin has had over 50-plus years on camera. He’s a treasure, and The Kominsky Method knows how to put him on display. Douglas is better known for his dramatic work, but he’s always had an effective streak of self-deprecation (see Wonder Boys, among other gems). As Sandy, he’s vain and ridiculous, but always just self-aware enough that he doesn’t seem like a cartoon. And though he only appears briefly throughout the season, sarcastic proctologist is the part DeVito was born to play, baby.
In one episode, Norman watches Cocoon, Ron Howard’s 1985 film about a group of senior citizens who find themselves revitalized through contact with aliens, and is unexpectedly moved by it this time. (“It’s a whole different thing when you’re in the demographic!” he tells Sandy.) Douglas and Arkin require no such extraterrestrial intervention to be at their best. At advanced ages (Douglas is 74, Arkin a decade older), they are delivering some of the best work of their long and distinguished careers, by leaning into the embarrassment and angst of still being around after all this time. It’s a show about old pros, made by old pros. Their bodies may not work like they used to, but their performances sure do.