There's Something Comfortingly Familiar About Netflix's 'The Kominsky Method'

Thanks to deft performances by Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, Netflix's 'The Kominsky Method' has loads of charm

Simon Spungin
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Michael Douglas (left) and Alan Arkin, cast members of Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method.”
Michael Douglas (left) and Alan Arkin, cast members of Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method.”Credit: Chris Pizzello/AP
Simon Spungin

Like a bowl of grandma’s chicken soup with kneidlach, this eight-part Netflix sitcom is infused throughout with warmth and affection. It might not be the funniest show on television right now, and it might rely heavily on well-tested narrative formulae, but “The Kominsky Method” is poignant and moving.

The show stars Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, two Hollywood stalwarts who can be relied upon to deliver exactly the kind of curmudgeonly performance required. Douglas plays Sandy Kominsky, a revered acting coach who is bitter about never having made the transition from stage to screen. Arkin is Norman Newlander, Kominsky’s longtime and long-suffering agent and friend.

Their friendship, which is tested over the course of eight episodes by Sandy’s selfishness and bitterness, is the heart of “The Kominsky Method” – and whatever else you can say about the show, it’s got a lot of heart.

The plot is very much secondary in “The Kominsky Method.” I could tell you, for example, that Norman’s wife (played by Susan Sullivan, who also appeared in Lorre’s “Dharma & Greg”) dies in the first episode, safe in the knowledge that your enjoyment would not be diminished. Instead, the relationship between two aging characters is what gives the show its charm: they bicker with affection and they lovingly torture each other.

When Sandy needs a hefty loan from his friend to cover a tax bill, Norman – after initially balking, but relenting after “consulting” his late wife – agrees, but only on the condition that the money is a gift. He knows that his “no strings attached” condition is the one caveat that Sandy’s pride will not allow him to accept. And he delights in his old friend’s anguish.

The Midas touch

A harsher critic would find much to disparage in “The Kominsky Method.” Some of the tropes employed are as old as the main characters: Sandy’s idiosyncratic drink-of-choice (Jack Daniels and diet Dr. Pepper: “The Jack keeps me from killing myself, and the Pepper keeps me regular,” he explains), the generational misunderstandings and the kvetching over physical ailments.

But Chuck Lorre has a Midas touch, and the ‘King of Sitcoms’ manages to inject a healthy dose of humor into what might have been a thoroughly depressing journey through the physical deterioration that comes to us all. The jokes about mortality are as predictable as death itself, but that doesn’t matter.

Lorre has also recruited some heavy-hitting stars for cameo appearances. Danny DeVito gives a typically madcap performance as Sandy’s urologist – an almost obligatory character in any show about aging – and there are brief appearances from Elliot Gould, Jay Leno and Patti LaBelle.

In interviews, Lorre insists that “The Kominsky Method” is not autobiographical, but it is clearly inspired and shaped by his own experiences of three and a half decades working in the television industry. The show is stuffed with inside jokes: Gould – who, in real life, has endorsed such products as Jim Beam bourbon and Boston Beer – ends up accepting a gig for a dodgy finance company, which Sandy rejects.

Lorre clearly sees himself not just as a provider of entertainment, but as a dispenser of wisdom. In previous shows, he shared his thoughts with viewers via the medium of vanity cards – those on-screen quotes or images that appear after the final credits. During the course of his career, Lorre used these cards to address such issues as his alcohol problem, his tempestuous relationships with television networks and even rumors about the disappearance of Charlie Sheen from “Two and a Half Men.”

These cards, more often than not, read like computer-generated self-help aphorisms. “You’re not a noun, you’re a verb,” for example, is the opening sentence of the vanity card that appears after Episode 6 of “The Kominsky Method.”

It’s easy to forgive “The Kominsky Method” its flaws. Yes, it’s derivative. Yes, it relies on jokes that others have carried off with greater aplomb; indeed, some scenes are reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” And, yes, its gentle pace can verge on dawdling. But, on the back of strong performances from Douglas and Arkin – both Oscar winners, of course – it works.