BARNHART

CBS’s B Positive Hopes to Make Dialysis Hilarious

The latest from Chuck Lorre’s sitcom factory pairs an odd couple over a kidney donation.
  • Annaleigh Ashford as Gina and Thomas Middleditch as Drew in B Positive. (Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS)
    Annaleigh Ashford as Gina and Thomas Middleditch as Drew in B Positive. (Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS)
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    CBS has six situation comedies on its prime time schedule this fall, and Chuck Lorre is producing four of them: Mom, Young Sheldon, Bob (Hearts) Abishola, and the new one, B Positive. This isn’t surprising. Risk aversion is standard practice at the formerly “big four” TV networks, which have been overshadowed by their parent companies’ streaming giants. In a couple of months, poor CBS will have its letters stripped off CBS All Access as the streamer is rebranded Paramount+. Smaller networks have smaller margins for error, and CBS is turning once again to its most dependable producer of comedy. Indeed, for more than a decade no one in the business has out-sitcommed Chuck Lorre Productions (and he has the vanity cards to prove it).

    But is that saying much? You’ll hear critics sniff at traditional three-camera sitcoms and not take them seriously (which I thought was the point), treat them as an outmoded way to deliver laughs (kind of like vinyl is an outmoded way to deliver music). But really, if you think about it, television hasn’t gotten that far away from its roots as picture radio. A great deal of video entertainment still consists of people talking in front of eye candy. Or people who are eye candy, talking. Watching the upcoming fourth season of Netflix’s The Crown, I closed my eyes at times — mostly to avoid being distracted by the actors’ muggish attempts to impersonate present-day royals — and it was like listening to something Peter Morgan had written for the West End theater.

    Just to confirm this theory, I ordered a transcript of the pilot episode of B Positive and sure enough, the jokes are right there on the page. Here is the opening scene, between a doctor in a white lab coat and his patient, which gets quickly to the setup of the show:

    (Doctor:) “Your creatine level is through the roof.”

    (Patient:) “And that's not good?”

    “Rule of thumb, nothing in your body should ever be ‘through the roof.’ I'm afraid you're in renal failure.”

    “Renal as in kidney.“

    “Yes.”

    “Okay. Well, any chance, sir, that could be a mistake? I mean, that girl who took my blood, you know, with the piercings and the tattoos — “

    “My daughter.”

    “—very pretty, cool style. So what are we talking here? Medication diet? All fat? No fat? Should I be catching my own fish?”

    “I know it's a lot to process, but you really need to start thinking about potential kidney donors.”

    “Whoa, Whoa. Hang on. You're saying, you're saying I need a new kidney.”

    “I'd start with family. They're usually the best match.”

    “Oh, great. A Republican kidney.”

    “It’ll just help you pee. It won't tell you which bathroom.”

    Of course, the writing doesn’t tell you if the show is going to be any good. It doesn’t tell you what the director will do with it — but Jimmy Burrows, merely the most accomplished and revered sitcom director working today, directed B Positive’s first two episodes, so there’s that. It won’t tell you that the doctor is played by that ever-dependable schlubby comic actor, Jason Kravits.

    The script also doesn’t tell you that the man in need of a kidney, whose name is Drew, is played by Thomas Middleditch, who as Richard in six seasons on HBO’s Silicon Valley was the perfect proxy for every millennial dork with way too much money and/or responsibility. The guy on this show sort of fits that description, too. Drew is asocial, freshly divorced, has a teenage daughter who barely speaks to him, yet is somehow qualified to see patients as a psychologist (albeit one with an Internet degree). Drew is Silicon Valley’s Richard reincarnated as a slightly lower life form.

    Playing Molly to his Mike — sorry, another Lorre reference — is Gina, a party girl who impulsively offers Drew one of her kidneys at a wedding reception. They have a history, however slight: “He’s the one guy I didn't hook up with in high school,” she tells a friend. Gina’s life is even sketchier than Drew’s: When she's not getting high and bringing strange men home, she makes a living driving seniors around in a minibus. No wonder she owes a loan shark money… but that’s a later episode. Again, casting is key, and Annaleigh Ashford nails it as Gina, which one would expect from the Tony Award winner for her portrayal of Essie in You Can't Take It With You.

    Also in the small ensemble are Izzy G. as Gina’s best friend Maddie and Terrence Terrell as an ex-NFL star who sits in the dialysis clinic with Drew three days a week. (Drew doesn’t have a workplace to go to, so the clinic takes its place.) I must point out that Mr. Knudsen, one of Gina’s regulars on the bus, is played by the great Bernie Kopell, aka Seigfried from Get Smart, aka The Love Boat’s love doctor. And then there’s Legendary Linda Lavin, who helped feminize sitcoms playing the title role in CBS’s Alice. She has a part in episode two, also as a senior at Gina’s workplace. It’s too early to say whether this old-folks-home ploy is just a way for Chuck Lorre to salute TV’s comedy stars of the past or whether he’s casting about for an actor to beef up the cast, as he did with the late, great Conchata Ferrell on Two and a Half Men.

    I once referred to Bob (Hearts) Abishola as the “least promising Chuck Lorre sitcom setup to date,” but I think B Positive may hold that title now. Like, what happens once he gets the kidney? Does he just keep going back to the dialysis lab to hang with his sitcom buddies? (The setup, by the way, is based on Mom’s co-executive producer Marco Pennette’s experience as a kidney recipient. And it’s not that farfetched, either — I know a very nice man who donated a kidney to the cashier at his grocery store after hearing her story in line.)

    Does B Positive have a chance in a ruthless TV environment with dwindling audiences and escalating budgets? Happily, the old rule of thumb of sitcoms – wait and see — still applies. After all, it took a couple of seasons for Mom to settle in; then it evolved to the point where Anna Faris felt expendable. I enjoyed Bob (Hearts) Abishola immensely last season, but the show’s modest ratings suggest that this is a make-or-break year. And I like what I see so far here, so I can’t help but… be positive.

    B Positive premieres November 5 at 8:30 PM ET on CBS.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: B Positive, CBS, Annaleigh Ashford, Bernie Kopell, Chuck Lorre, James Burrows, Jason Kravits, Linda Lavin, Thomas Middleditch, Chuck Lorre Productions