One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
Sifting through some of the offerings of the 2010s, it’s clear that network executives really want to get in psychological touch with their childhood. The Muppets, Downward Dog, Ted and its sequel, and even superb shows like Wilfred all revolve around the same basic premise of a sad human being at the mercy of a spiritual guide in the form of something innocent they loved as a kid, only for that entity to turn out as raunchy and unappealing as middle aged life.
So you’d think with Imaginary Mary, we could have a chef come in and craft a tasty spin on this familiar concept. But instead, the cooks have taken over ABC’s kitchen, and the finished project isn’t much to look at or get excited about.
The series premiere centers around a fiercely independent workaholic named Alice (played by Jenna Elfman) whose outright “fear” of children has led her to an impasse with her serious boyfriend, Ben, a divorced “rad dad” of three (played by Stephen Schneider). Unable to cope with this new set of circumstances, Alice is visited by the return of her childhood imaginary friend, Mary (voiced by Rachel Dratch), whom she dreamt up in the midst of a traumatic divorce between her own parents that clearly had a lasting effect on her view of relationships.
That’s right, this fiercely independent workaholic’s “real” problems are as Freudian as it gets, assuming everything this character has struggled for and built since age 18 was apparently a breeze — she started her own sports public relations business because to be clear, no rom-com or sitcom has presented that oversimplified take on a corporate job in about five seconds. No, this fiercely independent workaholic’s true challenge to the point of mental breakdown is pretending to be nice around children. And that’s really it in terms of depth to this character, because the entire aim of the show is to address Mary’s emotional problems as filtered through one of the most grating CG animated characters ever brought to television. I wouldn’t even let her into Foster’s Home for Imaginary Children.
Imaginary Mary desperately wants the relationship between Alice and her imaginary yeti bestie to be a turnkey gender swap of Seth McFarlane’s Ted, but the tone is far too disconnected for Mary to be a likable or even believable character in this glossy, high-energy sitcom that also wants to be vaguely raunchy. The shock value of seeing Mary peep in on Alice’s sexual adventures isn’t as humorous as the writers apparently hoped for, nor is it a link to the entire heart of what should be a story about a woman sorting through her emotional baggage in order to make room for new adventures. Instead, Imaginary Mary is content on settling for easy answers to cliched circumstances. Haven’t we already learned from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that psychology in its characters can be as sincere as it is entertaining?
Of course, none of Imaginary Mary‘s gargantuan conceptual issues completely overwhelm the tidbits that will work fine for some viewers. It’s mainstream enough to appeal to casual viewers, and there are bright spots to defend getting sucked in. Specifically, the kids are well-written archetypes that end up being the only respite in between Alice and Mary’s regrettable dance routines and “who are you talking to” jokes. The youngest (Erica Tremblay) has a particular obsession with death that is amusing enough and the oldest (Nicholas Coombe) feels like a holdover from The Goldbergs in his neurotic obsession with high school image (not a surprise considering the two shows share the same co-creators). At the very least, Imaginary Mary finds subtle ways to include social media norms in a way that feels somewhat relevant, rather than forced.
In fact, one of the best ways to watch Imaginary Mary is to skip all of the scenes that include Mary and Alice at all, instead opting for the family problems of Ben and his kids, the only characters that seem to really work. It’s a short show in that case, but it would also be a massive improvement in terms of structure and id. Of course, the show would still suffer from a lack of engaging humor, a surprise considering the pedigree of the writers, who conclude Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins from Trophy Wife.
Despite going by a well-intentioned recipe, Imaginary Mary fails to stick any sort of landing on what it wants to say about its lead, except that she is being manipulated by a demon yeti with a personality as inconsistent as the show’s script. The entire cast — and the animators — deserve better.
Aside from some impressive animation work, Imaginary Mary is all energy without any of the effort.