One can almost hear the conversation that must have happened around the creation of Imaginary Mary. How do you get people to pay attention to your family comedy (a tried but true format), especially on a network (ABC) that is already stacked full of good, established series in the same genre? Bring in Jenna Elfman, sure, she’s a charming presence and a reliable TV veteran. Maybe we jazz it up a little with, I don’t know … a sassy CG character? That’s what people like, right?
At the panel for Imaginary Mary during the last TCA press tour, someone in the room asked if the CG character would be sticking around (it is), with the not-so-hidden subtext of “maybe it shouldn’t.” But I’m jumping ahead — let’s set the groundwork here.
Imaginary Mary follows a career-focused woman, Alice (Elfman), who is also unlucky in love and does not have a husband (Note to Jane Austen: Yeah, it’s all the same). But sure, Stephen Schneider’s Ben is cute, and he and Elfman have great chemistry, so why not? Ben also happens to be a single dad with three kids, which freaks Alice out. Though she’s ready to throw the relationship away because of this anxiety that she’ll be a terrible potential step-mom, her childhood imaginary friend Mary (voiced by Rachel Dratch) returns to guide her through her anxiety.
There is certainly comedy to be mined here, as we’re essentially getting access to Alice’s inner thoughts and fears as she goes forth into the great unknown of parenting. But the juxtapositional joke of Mary being a cute, cuddly-looking alien puff-ball who also can talk dirty is stale almost instantly, and ultimately she doesn’t seem to provide much assistance (in the original pilot she was really janky, which I somehow prefer). Elfman is good with physical comedy, and she plays off the awkwardness of being caught talking to or interacting with Mary well. But it’s not enough to justify Mary being there, especially when in subsequent episodes Alice learns to talk things through with Ben, as she should, if they’re going to end up being in a working relationship.
The reality is that Imaginary’s core setup as a family comedy isn’t a bad one. It has a solid cast and a new spin on a fish-out-of-water kind of comedy where Alice is joining an established family, and struggling to find her place there while still maintaining a separate (from the kids) relationship with Ben. On that level, it’s actually pretty interesting, but Mary doesn’t work at all. It has nothing to do with Dratch, who is always a great voice talent, it’s that the idea of CG Mary is the biggest thing that’s wrong with the show, and yet conversely, the thing on which the show is based.
Like so many new TV show premises, this one seems much better suited to a movie than a series. The three act structure practically writes itself (Alice meets a guy, struggles with anxiety to find her place within his family, and ultimately overcomes her fears and no longer needs her imaginary friend guide). ABC, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, reduced the episode number from 13 to 9 last fall. What it really needed, though, was somebody real to suggest they scrap the imaginary part.
Rating: ★ — Skip; It’s biggest novelty is also its biggest weakness.