The cast of ABC’s new midseason sitcom “Imaginary Mary” works well together: Jenna Elfman plays a successful owner of a PR agency who isn’t afraid of much in life… Except serious relationships and children. She does not do children. But in a comedic twist, she falls for Ben (Stephen Schneider), a charming divorcee who happens to come with three kids. The chemistry among all five actors is vibrant and light — and as the adults on set, Elfman and Schneider put their comedy backgrounds to good use.
The last member of the cast is Mary (Rachel Dratch), Alice’s imaginary friend from childhood. Having grown up with divorcing, neglectful parents, Mary helped Alice deal with the trauma of a broken home. As an adult, Mary reappears in Alice’s life once Ben hints that, after a couple months of dating, he wants her to finally meet her kids.
The first two episodes are cute enough, with both Dratch and Elfman delivering heartfelt and funny lines. The rest of the cast pulls their weight, too. Schneider is charming as the dad who’s trying hard to make it on his own; the kids are surprisingly enjoyable, if a touch cliche — the socially awkward eldest son, the disgruntled middle child, the wise-beyond-her-years baby of the family.
The main slip comes with making Mary CGI. Because she’s not actually there, Elfman is forced to act and react to, well, an imaginary character, which can be a hard task when doing physical comedy. And in Dratch you have an actress very capable of random silliness — from Debbie Downer and Barbara Walters on “SNL” to Liz Lemon’s hallucinated Blue Man in “30 Rock,” she’s a trove of great facial expressions, voices, and pratfalls.
And it’s not like there isn’t precedent. Remember the 1991 movie “Drop Dead Fred”? In it, Phoebe Cates plays a mild mannered woman named Lizzie who uses her childhood imaginary friend, Fred, to help her confront an overbearing mother and scumbag boyfriend. In the film, Fred was played by actual actor, Rik Mayall, using simple cutaways to show what Lizzie was seeing versus everyone else.
And of course, there’s “Wilfred,” the wonderfully weird FX series about Ryan (Elijah Wood), a depressed man who, for whatever reason, is the only one to see his neighbor’s dog as a full grown man (Jason Gann) in a dog suit. When the two actors had scenes together, they had pure, neurotic chemistry. And when he wasn’t with Jason Gann, Elijah Wood was with a real live dog!
When real actors are partnered with animated characters, however good the technical skill of the production is, it’s a weird experience. As a viewer, you’re forced to focus a little too hard on believing what’s happening and connecting with the heart of the action. “Imaginary Mary” does have its moments, and it stands a chance at finding an audience in die-hard rom-com fans. But for us, it would have been a whole lot better with Dratch herself.
Although we also would have accepted an adorable dog, too.
“Imaginary Mary” premieres Wednesday, March 29 at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT, and will air thereafter Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.