People who have read Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy, and/or seen the 2002 film adaptation starring Hugh Grant, may have a sense of deja vu when watching the premiere episode of NBC’s half-hour series adaptation. The pilot episode pretty much encapsulates almost the entirety of those previous two projects.
“We kind of tell the story of the movie in 20 minutes,” series star David Walton pointed out when I talked to him last month.
Walton thinks that approach worked, because, “now we’re in uncharted territory. The book doesn’t really address where the series is going, and the movie doesn’t. So we’re not really beholden to anything except for making the relationships and the stories kind of stay funny and meaningful and really appealing.”
In case you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, the concept of About a Boy is about how Will Freeman (Walton) finds his charmed, carefree, single existence surprisingly changed by the arrival of new neighbors Fiona (Minnie Driver) and her 11-year-old son Marcus (Benjamin Stockham). Almost in spite of himself, Will finds that Marcus and his unannounced visits start to grow on him.
The series — which will kick off on NBC with a preview following Olympics coverage Feb. 22 at 11pm ET before airing Tuesdays at 9pm ET starting Feb. 25 — is produced and created for television by Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood). And while the pilot episode has its charms (and even got me humming a One Direction tune, which is rare for me), it seems like it may have been better suited as an hourlong comedy-drama rather than a half-hour sitcom. Still, there are winning performances — especially between Walton and Stockham — as a unique sort of family begins to form among the main characters.
“Marcus is this catalyst for this really odd family starting to form,” Walton said. “I’m starting to fall in love with this kid and really care about him, even though he makes my life so much more complicated. A lot of the meaning and complexity will come out of that, this very strange family dynamic, where you have a single mom, her strange, weird son, and this very ill-suited father figure, who is irresponsible and selfish, but oddly a good influence on him, despite all of his attempts to not be.”
Just as Will finds himself being won over by Marcus, audiences will probably find themselves also under the spell of the charming Benjamin Stockham, who plays Marcus with an aura seemingly beyond his years. Walton told me Stockham is like that in real life.
“He’s really so smart,” Walton said. “He’s like a 50 year old. Stunts or anything physical, he’s like, ‘Can we get a stunt double here? I feel like my knee’s about to go.’ He’s like 13 years old, and he’s already sort of acting. He’s an old soul; it’s really cool. And he’s smarter than I am, and he’s more talented than I am [laughs], so it’s like playing with an adult who looks like a 10 year old.”
So if Marcus acts more like the grown-up in the relationship, perhaps Will is the “boy.” And that was, in a way, cathartic for Walton to play. The married father of two, with plenty of real-life responsibilities of his own, recalled a time in his own life when he aspired toward the Will Freeman ethos.
“Truthfully, I relate to Will in a lot of ways. For a large portion of my life I was trying to act like that. I was so allergic to responsibility, and I really felt like total freedom was the ultimate goal. I love dogs, but I was like I don’t even want a dog. I don’t want anything that’s going to keep me from, like, hopping on a plane and going somewhere fun.
“I think what I realized, and what Will will realize, is that you miss out on these real human needs for connection and meaning, and so this little boy kind of becomes this kindling for real human desires that Will may be pushing down. At the end of the day, Will, on the surface, is this selfish kind of womanizing thing, but he’s a complex guy. He’s really got a big heart, and he really loves this kid, despite really trying almost not to.”
About a Boy previews Feb. 22 at 11pm ET on NBC. The series moves to Tuesdays at 9pm ET starting Feb. 25.
(l-r) Benjamin Stockham and David Walton in “About a Boy”: Jordin Althaus/NBC