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'Monkey' has appeal, and music is the key

The language of CBS's ''Love Monkey" is Bob Dylan-ese, peppered with the odd Sex Pistols phrase, and spoken in a Talking Heads accent. It also has etymological roots in Aretha Franklin, CBGB, Air Supply, and Eric Clapton's ''Layla," which proudly announces itself in a cellphone ring tone.

And it's this language of rock 'n' roll that makes ''Love Monkey," which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 4, more than it should be. Without its classic, punk, and alternative allusions, the New York romantic comedy would be just another ''Sex and the City" with dudes, another ''Jake in Progress" or ''Four Kings." But with its musical knowing, ''Love Monkey" comes off more like a small-screen ''High Fidelity," the John Cusack movie based on Nick Hornby's novel. Indeed, it's based on a 2003 novel by Kyle Smith, who is sometimes compared to Hornby.

The Cusack figure in ''Love Monkey" is Tom Farrell, who's played as a slacker everyguy by Tom Cavanagh of ''Ed." Tom's an A&R man for a high-powered record company that's run by Phil, a greed head played with electricity by Eric Bogosian. But he has musical integrity, and he's out to find the next Rolling Stones, not the next Britney Spears. He spends his nights in sticky beer clubs, hoping to be blown away -- and sometimes he is. Of course, his savvy for bands far outscores his ability with women; he's dating a Jewel-loving vegetarian named Gaby with whom he has nothing in common.

Obviously, rock music isn't a revelation on series TV. You can't get through an episode of any teen or crime series without a montage set to some generic sap that will later appear on an ''O.C." disc. But ''Love Monkey" uses music not just as decoration but also as one of its characters' means of expression. Most series forget that music has been a voice for every generation, and not just a way for a TV director to evoke viewer emotions. We declare ourselves through the music we love and hate. Tom is so passionate about rock that he gives his sister ''The Essential Dylan" as a baby shower gift, and he means it as a great compliment -- something Gaby doesn't understand. He always has his favorite song lyrics at the ready, placing them meaningfully into his conversations.

When he meets his musical equal, and by the end of tonight's hour he may have with Julia (Ivana Milicevic), sparks are sure to fly. If Tom does hide behind his musical snobbery, as Gaby suggests, then he will have one less layer of armor with a woman who also hates Jewel.

Despite its pluses, ''Love Monkey" does have a few important problems. For one thing, the premiere finds Tom in professional lust for a young singer-songwriter named Wayne (Teddy Geiger) who is an obvious knock-off of John Mayer. We're led to believe that this breathy, sensitive, slightly flat acoustic singer is exactly the kind of performer Tom wouldn't like, and yet our hero appears to have a sycophantic attraction to him. It's a jarring inconsistency, the kind that could undermine the show's cred. It's only network cred; this isn't ''High Fidelity," after all, it's a lite version of it that airs before the nightly news. But still, it's a significant wrong turn that reeks of behind-the-scenes marketing efforts at CBS.

And Tom's group of guy-buddies needs creative attention. His best friend is a woman named Bran (Judy Greer), who gives him sage advice when she's not teasing him. Greer promises to be an engaging character in her own right, if the writers don't turn her into Tom's romantic destiny. But Tom spends most of his down time drinking with the boys, a trio of indistinct men who don't seem to have much purpose except to advise Tom and joke about chick difficulties. They moan about ''Grant's Law," so named after Hugh Grant and his hooker dalliance, and they drop familiar lines such as this one by Shooter (Larenz Tate): ''That woman is so defective, you could return her and get your money back."

Jason Priestley is Mike, the married one (he's married to Tom's sister), and he's just kind of bland. Like Jake (Christopher Wiehl), the sportswriter in the group, he needs to be fleshed out. One hallmark of successful ensemble shows like ''Sex and the City" is the way they make each character count. They ''grow" the supporting cast.

The ''Love Monkey" pilot has promise; now it's time for the writers to stop monkeying around and deliver the goods.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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