FX’s The Comedians is a strong argument in favor of sending critics as many episodes of a new show as possible. Directed by Larry Charles (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld), this faux documentary starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad as “themselves” is, during its first two episodes, almost unbearable, on purpose. It becomes more relaxed, lively, and confident in its third and fourth episodes, tamping down its theater-of-pain tendencies without losing them and generating relief along with some big laughs. Crystal and Gad settle into their characters and their onscreen partnership by episode three and perform a dandy little musical number in episode four, which also features an extended cameo by Mel Brooks. (The song is by Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, who won an Oscar for their work with Gad on Frozen.)
But there’s a lot of unpleasantness leading up to those later moments, and it’s not earned by the often glib, insider-y writing that gets us there. The sketches within the show are mostly bad — no fun even if you accept them as evidence that Gad and Crystal’s sketch-comedy program isn’t working yet — and a transvestite director played by Steven Weber is cringeworthy in all the wrong ways (in the aftermath of Transparent, she feels more like a one-quarter-baked stereotype than a character). Nor am I sure that a rub-the-viewers’-noses-in-it approach makes sense for a sitcom that’s airing just one new episode per week. If you think you can tough it out, the The Comedians is worth a look, if only to have an opinion on — and if you stick with it, you may feel that your time hasn’t been wasted, and that perhaps The Comedians just needed time to figure itself out, not unlike the fictional series it’s chronicling. But man, does it test your patience.
Taking a page from almost every backstage drama ever made about selfish and self-loathing comic performers — as well as from the Swedish TV show it’s remaking — The Comedians dwells on the knee-jerk narcissism, backbiting, turf warfare, and bedrock coldness that’s part of showbiz in general, comedy in particular. Gad as “Gad” and Crystal as “Crystal” are both nearly insufferable, on purpose, jockeying for advantage by invoking youth or experience to justify getting their ways, undermining each other at every turn, and generally acting like rich jerks. (In one signature moment, a PA loaded down with packages holds open a door for Crystal, who’s free-handed, and he breezes through without a second thought.)
Granted, their inhumanity is a sign of commitment to their characters, their show, and Larry Charles, who’s been chronicling selfishness for so long that he’s become the Charles Darwin of American assholism. But even so, the characters’ smug entitlement and knife-twisting meanness feels like an affectation — one more thing you expect to see on an adults-only cable comedy where actors can curse, smoke pot, and do sketches where they have anal sex in prison, cut people’s throats, and projectile-puke. The dourness, darkness, and often juvenile sense of perversity would be more impressive if The Comedians showed more evidence upfront that all this audience punishment will eventually prove to have been worth it — that the show might eventually develop the formal rigor and hellish depth we saw in both versions of HBO’s The Comeback, or the meta-lunacy of 30 Rock, or the anthropological exactness of The Larry Sanders Show, still the greatest inside-showbiz comedy ever to air on American TV. It doesn’t get there by episode four, but there are glimmers that it might.
The supporting cast never breaks out as you keep hoping they will. It’s not the actors’ fault; it’s the writing, which often seems to conflate edgy honesty with scenes in which bastards act like bastards, passive-aggressively needling people on their own social level or higher while treating underlings like non-entities. The ineffectual careerist head writer (Matt Oberg), the blasé and put-upon PA (Megan Ferguson), and the high-strung and brittle producer (Stephnie Weir) are all smartly acted, but they never rise above the sum total of their eccentricities or the abuse inflicted on them by Crystal and Gad. They feel like types who wouldn’t be recognized as types by people who haven’t worked on Hollywood sets. The faux-documentary conceit isn’t executed well, either; so much of the action is covered with multiple handheld cameras — the go-to style for most laugh-track-free sitcoms — that when a character looks into the lens or hassles the crew, it seems like a mistake. (This has been a problem on a lot of faux docs. Why choose to work in this format that you’d rather not commit to?)
I’m glad I was able to see the first four episodes of The Comedians back-to-back; if I’d only seen the pilot on premiere night, I might have thought, “Been there, seen that, done with it” and bailed. That means I would never have seen Gad and Crystal’s musical number in episode four, or their semi-improvised teamwork in the third episode, which involves an awards show, a limo ride, and some potent weed. Strange as it might sound, The Comedians might turn out to be the first series that’s tough to stomach when viewed on a traditional TV schedule, but that’ll play pretty well when binge-watched.