Can an Oddball Be the Star of a TV Show?

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Left: Documentary Now; right: Blunt Talk. Photo: IFC, Starz

Welcome to your tour of This Is TV in 2015. Please keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. On our left, you can see Blunt Talk, and if you watch the first episode, you'll spot Patrick Stewart suckling on the breasts of a sex worker. Yes, the real Patrick Stewart! Don't worry, the show is not actually bad. Okay, you can put on your safety glasses, we're entering the Fred Armisen wing. Did you know that Fred Armisen is himself on 9,000 shows? It's true! One of them is Documentary Now. Right over there is Bill Hader wrapping sweatpants around his head, not unlike Oola in Star Wars. Wave hi to Bill Hader, everyone. Now, who here has seen the 1922 Ur-documentary Nanook of the North? Oh, no one? Well, if you get a chance, that'll really enhance your appreciation of the full-on parody of it that would otherwise seem pretty bizarre and maybe off-putting. Now, everyone, grab your cameras, because we're about to enter the HBO Wig Reliquary.

Weird TV is on the rise. But Documentary Now (beginning tonight on IFC) and Blunt Talk (premiering Saturday on Starz) are in a different category of oddities: They both put their oddness front and center, taking an accent note and making it the melody. That makes both shows occasionally exhausting, but also lends their characters a kind of vulnerability that's difficult to find elsewhere. When you make the supporting character the star of the show, however, things get tricky.

Blunt Talk, at first glance, seems more like the now-traditional cable series: Rich white guy who gets laid a lot is somewhat famous, but also sad? From executive producer Seth MacFarlane? Oh, boy. In practice, though, the show hews much closer to creator Jonathan Ames's previous show Bored to Death than it does to other antihero dramedies — except that instead of Jason Schwartzman's "Jonathan Ames" at the center of the show, it's more like Ted Danson's loopy George. Patrick Stewart's Walter Blunt is a newscaster with a boozy streak, and a throng of sycophantic but ultimately endearing underlings, including Jacki Weaver (basically doing an impression of Babette from Gilmore Girls) and Timm Sharp. There's an almost David E. Kelley–esque, varsity-level weirdness to everyone, but the show sees all of its characters in an exceptionally tender way. Stewart's unbelievable warmth helps, but it's not quite enough to anchor the show. His character is too scattershot. All the wild and weird character quirks are fun, but in a protagonist, they need to illuminate a fundamental state of being or push toward the central narrative of the show.

Oddball is good, on TV and off, but like any other factor, it works best as part of a texture or dynamic, not as the single, across-the-board style. There's a reason Kenneth isn't the star of 30 Rock, and that the show isn't called Kramer. Alternately, if you put your eccentricities at the center of the show, there has to be a push against something: Comedy Bang! Bang! wanders pretty far into absurdity, but it's always tethered — even just barely — to the traditional formats of a talk show. BoJack Horseman gets away with whimsy because it has such raw emotional truths and stakes motivating its main characters.

In Blunt, everything feels like a wacky aside. Documentary Now is a full-on wacky aside turned main attraction. The series stars Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, and was co-created by them and Seth Meyers. Each episode parodies a famous documentary, sometimes with exacting precision and sometimes with not-so-exacting precision: In episode two, Vice's ostensibly balls-out documentary style is certainly ripe for satire, but using Juarez, Mexico, as a backdrop for that joke feels callous at best. There are moments of brilliance, but they would have been better off without the diluting affects of the rest of the episode.

Now can feel very much like an SNL sketch, but the kind of oddballs that air just before 1 a.m. Occasionally, those sketches reveal offbeat brilliance, and Now does highlight just how good an actor Hader is in addition to being a staggeringly gifted comedian. The premiere episode spoofs Grey Gardens, and I almost couldn't finish it because it felt cruel to watch these people suffer — except, of course, it's pretend. (Yes, that is how I feel about the real Grey Gardens. It's fine for other people, but I can't handle it.) The episode gets very silly eventually, but Hader's performance is poignant and affecting in a way that Now can't quite handle.

Both shows have a fundamental eccentricity that is its own kind of delight and thrill. But these characters — concepts? — aren't sturdy enough for the burden of being the hub around which the story spins. It's as if the shows are shining too bright a light on a lurking nocturnal creature, and we get this intense flash of vulnerability, recognition, and it's a wonder to behold, rare and exposed. But then the animal scurries off. It's enough footage for a charming clip, but not for a whole episode. Or season. Or series.