Spring finale recap, part 2: Comedies

Bobs-Burgers-5.13-630x354By JIM SABATASO

This week let’s check back in with some of the sitcoms we reviewed this season.

Spoilers to follow.

Archer

After a fourth season that turned the entire series on its side — setting up the bumbling crew from the spy agency, formerly known as ISIS, as drug/gun runners unknowingly working for the CIA — season six was something of a reset. Now officially contracted with the CIA, Sterling, Lana, and company got back to basics (unsuccessfully) running missions while being generally and hilariously awful to one another along the way.

While a return to the show’s status quo meant a return to many of the familiar story beats, creator and showrunner Adam Reed continues to allow his characters to grow if not mature. Fatherhood has given Sterling (Jon Benjamin) a purpose for the first time. And unlike his reckless attempt at parenting with the Wee Baby Sheamus, Sterling is genuinely concerned with the well-being of both AJ and her mother Lana (Aisha Tyler), committing himself.

As always the jokes and high-minded references were dense and fast. Likewise, the animation continues to impress.

Despite some lagging in the middle, season six picked up steam in its back half as it raced toward another high-concept finale, this time riffing on The Fantastic Voyage. By the end of the arc, the CIA contract is off and the team is disavowed. With their days of half-assed espionage ostensibly at an end, season seven looks to be headed for yet another shakeup. And that’s just fine. Reed has so successfully developed these characters, that they will thrive in literally, figuratively, any situation.

Bob’s Burgers

Bob’s Burgers capped off another strong, funny and sweet fifth season with a pair of episodes that demonstrated exactly why this is the best sitcom currently on TV. Creator and executive producer Loren Bouchard and his writing team have created a world of weirdly loveable characters that continue to show new depth with each passing season.

It’s a shame that Fox shunted so much of this season to the 7:30 p.m. Sunday timeslot, where it was regularly preempted by football. I get that The Simpsons and Family Guy draw bigger audiences (make what you will about what that says of the taste of the average American viewer), but Bob’s deserves better.

So, yeah, those last two episodes. While tonally disparate, presented together they perfectly represented the warmth and silliness that is the hallmark of this series. The penultimate half hour, “Hawk and Chick,” gave us a Bob (Jon Benjamin) and Louise (Kristen Schaal) episode, easily the show’s strongest paring. In it, the two attempt to reunite the stars of a father-daughter samurai film series by staging a screening of one of the movies. Louise’s investment in the scheme gets personal when she realizes that her relationship with her Bob could similarly deteriorate as she grows up. The material is high on emotions but never treacly. It’s a fine line that the show deftly walks on a regular basis.

The finale, then, is just madcap silliness, pulling in nearly every character in the series as Mr. Fischoeder (Kevin Kline) invites them to compete for free rent via a cutthroat water balloon fight. Despite such a crowded cast, nearly everyone gets a moment to shine, with tertiary characters like Sal the sex shop owner getting their own mini arcs. The episode has a fun, school’s-out-for-the-summer vibe that was the perfect way to celebrate such a successful season.

Last Man on Earth

When I first reviewed Last Man on Earth, I was intrigued by its concept and cautiously optimistic it could pull it off given the creative force of Christopher Miller, Phil Lord, and Will Forte. Questions about how you sustain a show with one character were quickly answered, as the show built up a small community of survivors. And the combo of Miller/Lord/Forte meant that jokes and story came easy.

However, after a strong premier, the series faltered due to the poor characterization of its protagonist, Phil Miller (Forte). His turn from genial slacker to despicable schemer was abrupt and not at all enjoyable. Many shows have unlikable characters at their center. Arrested Development has a whole family of them. Viewers can take a certain pleasure in nastiness when it’s balanced with humor and ultimately good-natured. But when there’s nothing redeemable or pleasurable to grab onto, these characters become shrill and mean-spirited, like, say, all of the Bluths in season four of Arrested.

Phil’s nastiness to Carol (Kristen Schaal) and Todd (Mel Rodriguez) isn’t fun to watch. And his attempts to sleep with Melissa (January Jones) come off as just plain creepy.

The problem with Phil’s character is more about pacing than any specific creative choice. Phil’s arc just takes too long. The season finale gives Phil a clean slate, redeeming him as he and Carol set out on the road away from Tucson. But after a dozen episodes of nastiness, it’s hard to get on board with this turn. The final scene does tease the possibility of some high-stakes storytelling in season two, but if Phil reverts back to jerk mode, I’m not sure I’ll be watching.

Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul might be a better fit for the drama category, but I think a case can be made for dark comedy. Before its premier, I was uncertain if Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s prequel to Breaking Bad was going to work. On its face, it looked like a retread of a successful show, with inevitably diminishing returns. In hindsight, I know how wrongheaded that thinking was.

The 10-episode season sees Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill in his pre-Saul days, trying to put his fast-talking grifter past behind him as he works to become a real lawyer. But as we learn over the season, a leopard can’t change his spots. Jimmy thrives when he’s working an angle and pulling a con. His most successful professional moments come when he lets this side of himself off the leash and operates in the morally gray areas of the law.

Odenkirk is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast. One of the season’s strongest episodes reveals the tragic backstory of Jonathan Bank’s Mike Ehrmantraut.

Michael McKean also does great work as Jimmy’s disapproving older brother Chuck, whose eventual betrayal is the final straw that pushes Jimmy down the road to becoming Saul.

Rhea Seehorn brings out Jimmy’s better angels in her role as Kim, a once and possibly future lover, and lawyer at Chuck’s firm.

While situated in the Breaking Bad universe, the series is confidently its own thing, while still retaining the aesthetics and feel of its predecessor. Like that show, Better Call Saul is expertly paced, offering up a soundtrack, set pieces and montages that are both stylish and gorgeous.

Saturday Night Live

Going into the 40th season of SNL, I set my expectations low. With several high-profile departures in recent years — Wiig, Forte, Sudakis, Hader, Mulaney — the show was still rebuilding as newer cast members found their feet. I know these things take time, and while I’m willing to be patient, this past season was one hell of a test. By the middle of the season, however, it was clear I didn’t set my expectations nearly low enough.

From a production standpoint, episodes were a mess; lousy with technical snafus like poor blocking, shoddy set design, sloppy camera work and sound issues. That’s to say nothing of the numerous flubbed lines, which were excessive even by live TV standards. Overall, it was surprisingly unprofessional for a show that’s been at it for four decades.

The comedy didn’t fare much better. Despite a few bright spots — mostly the pre-taped pieces, and Mooney/Bennet’s ten-to-one sketches — the content was lazy bordering on hack at times. Thank God, then, for Kate McKinnon, whose impressive comic chops managed to elevate even the most middling material. Other cast standouts this season, like Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong and Kyle Mooney, show potential. Unfortunately, even their talent couldn’t rise above this season’s aggressively mediocre writing.

But the biggest disappointment by far was Weekend Update. It’s sad to see what was once the show’s strongest segment reduced to something so laughably safe and inoffensive. Co-hosts, Michael Che and Colin Jost failed to connect with each other or the audience. Their utter lack of chemistry was distracting, as was Che’s numerous blown lines and stilted delivery, that killed many jokes before they even landed.

For some time, I’ve pondered if the current sketch show boom over on Comedy Central has rendered SNL obsolete. Yes, it’s an institution, but it may no longer be essential. With series like Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer and Kroll Show killing it with smart satire and high-concept comedy, SNL by comparison looks like a college improv troupe. I have to wonder if SNL has struggled with attracting stronger writing talent, as writers choose the freedom of cable over the more restrictive, formulaic world of broadcast TV.

Similarly, Update has been eclipsed by The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight on the satire front. It begs the question, do SNL writers not even bother to compete, or are they just that indifferent about current events? Either way fittingly matches the overall trend for late-night network programming. Shows like Fallon and Kimmel prefer to be fun rather than funny, finding it more important to make people feel good than actually think about something. As entertainment, that’s all well and good. But as comedy, it’s an abject failure.

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