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Fate of new CBS comedy depends on whether viewers are crazy about Robin Williams or he drives them crazy

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Robin Williams, left, and James Wolk in The Crazy Ones

CLIFF LIPSON / CBS Enlarge Image

Robin Williams, left, and James Wolk in The Crazy Ones

How much Robin Williams is too much Robin Williams?

The answer, of course, will vary, depending on who's answering the question. Some people can't get enough of Williams's manic, all-over-the-map, partly improvised comedy style; others, however, might be more inclined to view the veteran comedian and TV/movie star as a commodity best enjoyed in smaller doses.

At this moment in Williams's career, it's a very important question. The success or failure of The Crazy Ones, the CBS sitcom that brings him back to series TV after an absence of more than three decades, depends solely and completely on whether viewers like what he does enough to welcome him back into their homes on a weekly basis.

The Crazy Ones features a fine co-starring performance by Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and some solid work by a very likable supporting cast. But it'll all be for naught if Williams can't reconnect with TV watchers in something approaching the way he did back when Mork & Mindy (1978-82) made him a star.

In The Crazy Ones, Williams plays ad-agency owner Simon Roberts, one of those inspired-but-unhinged creative types whose erratic behaviour would probably get him fired if he wasn't the boss. He's the head of a powerful Chicago-based agency with a roster of high-profile corporate clients, but he's also a somewhat damaged guy who has been through a couple of divorces and a stint in rehab.

The task of saving brilliant Simon from self-sabotaging Simon falls to his daughter, Sydney (Gellar), who has risen to the rank of partner in the firm and has seen "& Roberts" added to the company's letterhead. She's as sensible and buttoned down as he is wild and wacky, so it's clear from the outset that there's a delicate balancing act going on.

In the series pilot, the agency has been summoned to a meeting with executives from fast-food giant McDonald's; rumour on the street is that they've decided to fire Simon and company and sign on with a rival firm.

Moments before the meeting, Sydney finds her dad in his office, clearly distracted and engaged in an agitated sparring match with an oversized Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot. She figures they're about to lose their biggest client, but it's a composed and clever Simon who strides into the conference room a few minutes later and wows the hamburger bunch with a back-to-basics pitch that manages, at least temporarily, to earn Roberts & Roberts a stay of execution.

All that's required is for someone at the firm to convince an A-list singer to agree to lend his/her voice to a 21st-century update of the beloved "You deserve a break today" jingle. In less than 24 hours.

That's where pilot-episode guest star Kelly Clarkson enters the picture, and her pitch-perfect performance goes a long way toward making The Crazy Ones' première memorable. For a singer, she's pretty darned funny.

As good as her appearance is, however, it's a one-off gag, as is the McDonald's storyline. No series can rely on stunt casting or product-placement gimmickry for its ongoing appeal.

The real work of making The Crazy Ones a winner is up to Williams and his co-stars. But really, it's Williams, period.

The pilot script, written by executive producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal), is thoughtfully constructed, but there's no mistaking the scenes in which Williams was encouraged to cut loose and improvise.

When he's good, he's very good. But he isn't infallible, and there are moments in the première that feel rather forced. It's a tricky situation, and just where the majority of viewers fall on the "How much is too much?" question will quickly determine how long Williams's return to prime time lasts.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2013 C8

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Updated on Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 9:20 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo

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