Maya Rudolph's variety show premiered last night, ebullient and silly and seemingly beamed in from a parallel universe where a show like this is a natural fit on television. The Maya Rudolph Show has all the makings of a perfectly cromulent variety series, but it's not fully hatched yet, nor is it clear that variety is a format that makes sense on American TV in 2014. Is it retro? Ironic? Watered-down SNL? At its low points, TMRS is a little of all those things — but at its high points, it's much more.
The Maya Rudolph Show is not exactly like anything else on TV right now, and that in itself is pretty gutsy. Unfortunately, that's not quite the same thing as being good. There were a few funny sketches, a few less-funny ones, and several song-and-dance numbers, but only one segment really stood out, and that was the tender but jokey lullaby with Rudolph and Chris Parnell. It was silly, sure, enumerating all the ways babies are disgusting and troublesome, but I got a little choked up as the two harmonized, repeating "I love you." It was the only part of the show that felt like something you couldn't possibly find anywhere else: Most of the sketches could have been at home on Saturday Night Live, and plenty of the songs could easily have been on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon; Janelle Monae's performance could have been from late-night or Ellen. But that lullaby duet doesn't make sense anywhere else, and frankly, it only barely made sense here, but I'll take these gifts where I can get them.
TMRS is of course descendant from SNL, but on the heels of this week's Andy Samberg–hosted finale, the "let's get the band back together!" comparison isn't totally flattering. SNL relies at least a bit on being live: There's a danger of everything falling apart, of a wig falling off, of a performer getting the giggles, of looking at the wrong camera — all of it feels very precarious, and oftentimes what distinguishes a legendary cast-member from an also-ran is how comfortable she seems amid the chaos. But there is no chaos on The Maya Rudolph Show. There's a studio audience, but the show isn't live, or even live-to-tape. It doesn't have the go-go-go energy of a late-night show, nor does it have the volume and confidence of a multi-camera sitcom. I'm not sure what the show's supposed to feel like — high-budget, like an awards show? Low-budget, like live comedy? Either is fine, as is a third unnamed option, but TMRS doesn't seem to have decided just yet.
That confusion permeated this episode. The show's meta opening number runs in contrast to how earnest a variety show needs to be. The Muppet Show and The Carol Burnett Show, probably the two must enduring variety series of the last 50-odd years, aren't detached or ironic at all. Some genres have so overwhelmed the TV landscape that we need shows that subvert and push against their tropes, but we haven't had a successful variety show in decades. Embrace the format! Don't hold back!
I usually wouldn't be this aggressive about a pilot nailing its style and ethos, but The Maya Rudolph Show is in a unique situation: It's been in the works for ages, and the show itself is not designed to become a weekly series, so it has far fewer chances to nail it than other shows making their debuts. I hope this isn't the series' only outing because I have almost infinite positive regard for Rudolph, and I'd rather see a show like this find itself than watch another second of some hate-soaked but competent sitcom. But I kept wondering what the mission of TMRS is, what tone it aspires to, how it sees itself, how it's supposed to feel. If it's going to go throw back, really go retro! If it's going to be contemporary, ditch the Vegas showgirl outfits. Mostly, though, the show just needs to be more. A $25,000 Pyramid sketch backed out of its premise almost immediately. Armisen and Rudolph talking in GPS voices is a fine premise for a sketch, but it never got beyond "so, these people have GPS voices." A song about "Dee's Nuts" and "Pam's Clams" was a little too raunchy for family viewing but not raunchy enough to be hilariously scandalous. Either be Sesame Street, which felt like the clear inspiration for a bit about how to spell "Maya," or be Schweddy Balls. But you can't be both.