It's a pleasure to have the Mr. Show gang back in With Bob and David, even though their style seems less fresh now that 16 years have passed and so many other sketch comedians have built on their excellence, and even though it takes the better part of the first two episodes for the troupe to find its feet again. The first episode of their Neflix show is disappointingly weak, especially when judged against the likes of Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, and the recently concluded Key and Peele, all of which show traces of Mr. Show's influence. Maybe that's to be expected given the immense time gap (acknowledged in an opening sketch where Odenkirk and Cross arrive in a comedy club via a time machine that looks and smells like a portable toilet) but it's still dispiriting. The second installment is better, though; by the time it glides into its second half, you can feel the old madcap sureness returning.
The show's stars and co-creators, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, broke through in the 1990s a part of an "anti-comedy" movement that was highly conceptual and often knowingly arch; the result, which aired from 1995-98 on HBO, was the closest that American TV had gotten to Monty Python's Flying Circus. In contrast to Saturday Night Live and most of its imitators, which adopted a variety-show model and separated all the sketches, Mr. Show linked all of its bits so that one sketch seemed to flow into and become another, at times with such grace to be nearly imperceptible. It had brazen, show-stopping highlights, some of which you can revisit here. My favorites include the musical version of Cops, the patriotic push to blow up the moon, and “Two Plus One Minus One,” an R&B duo where one guy did all the singing and presumably had all the musical talent, while the other just scowled and fondled an ornate cane and occasionally murmured, "Damn." But there were just as many bizarre and beguiling small moments, often rooted in characterization, like the parody of Behind the Music where Cross's redneck Ronny Dobbs musicalizes his animosity in "Y'all Are Brutalizing Me" and reveals his angelic falsetto:
The first couple of With Bob and David episodes don't have anything as sublimely ridiculous as this, and the premiere is surprisingly weak. A long, opening poker game revolving around the card players' ridiculous resolutions segues nicely to one of the card players, a Jew who wants to be Pope, achieving his dream and doing "most of his Poping from home." ("And you haaave myyyy blessing," he types on a computer keyboard, mitre towering atop his head, speaking each word aloud.) This in turn becomes an ad for Herschel's Kosher Goyim Delicacies that spotlights Turkey Jesus, a turkey loaf shaped like Jesus that is "pious and sits at the right hand of the father." From there we get snippets of a People's Court or Judge Judy type show starring Judge Sandy Whistleston (Cross) adjudicating a dispute between a man (Mr. Show regular Brian Posehn) who got beaten up by another man (Odenkirk) in the Staples Center buying popcorn while pants-less (Odenkirk insists it was a fighting championship and the man knew full well what he was getting into when he entered the arena). All of this and some of the subsequent bits are amusing, but lack the snap of classic Mr. Show, and a long sketch wherein a TV director is interviewed about his epic answer to Roots is so half-baked that it offends out of incompetence; it seems to be poking fun at Confederate apologists, but it's hard to be sure what the point is, and that makes its images of slavery feel as insensitive as the attitudes being made fun of.
By the time we get deep into the second episode, though, things start looking up. An early bit with Cross as a British-accented, hideously bewigged, fraudulent "visionary" giving a TED Talk is exactly what TED Talks deserve. ("The web allows us to be everywhere with our eyes, right? Rocket! Once the future, now the past! Noise! Communication, yah? Through sound waves. Wave bye-bye, gone! Digital, yeah.") He has two brothers, one played by Cross again, the other by Odenkirk, and the familial ridiculousness pays off nicely in a gag later on. Midway through the episode there's a terrific sketch about an irritating dudebro barfly (Cross) who's trying to reclaim the c-word from "feminazis"; it takes several delightful and unexpected turns (including one that's almost touching). A Richard Branson impersonator keeps showing up periodically in a hot-air balloon, which is pretty much exactly the sort of thing you want to see on a show like this one.
The gang might've been better off relegating the first episode to the dustbin and just kicking off with the second, but it's too late for that, and maybe it doesn't matter. Anybody who watched the HBO incarnation will tune in anyway, out of curiosity or a sense of nostalgia, and stick around for the moment when the gang seems to get its groove back.