As Louis C.K.'s famously killer bit made clear, time travel could only be an appealing proposition to a white man. For women, black people, or anyone who didn't conform to the restrictive societal mold of a time period, life prior to the modern era was kind of a suckfest. A white man with a time machine could be a knight, a cowboy, an adventurer — and everybody else would just have to hope they don't get noticed.
This is the central concept behind Time Traveling Bong, Ilana Glazer, Lucia Aniello, and Paul W. Downs's surprisingly insightful social satire cloaked in a stoner comedy. Excavated from Glazer and Downs's pre–Broad City days, the three-night event began as a no-budget webseries about the stogna-bologna misadventures of two roomies who, as the title suggests, discover a smoking apparatus that allows them to travel through time. Much of the webseries's core material remains unchanged, apart from enhanced production values and overall tone of both Downs and Glazer's performances. The original web shorts were clearly conceived and produced by two people who spent a lot of time on the couch stoned, just as we find Sharee (Glazer) and Jeff (Downs) in the opening scene. But a polished sense of professionalism runs through the miniseries's three episodes, conjuring images of hardworking professionals taking vape-pen hits between production meetings and promo shoots. As Fatboy Slim would put it: They've come a long way, baby.
Though Time Traveling Bong occasionally feels like a victory lap for Glazer's meteoric ascent and Downs's recent, excellent turn on Netflix's sketch showcase The Characters, what it decidedly does not feel like is a stoner comedy. The number of jokes directly related to the consumption of marijuana does not overwhelm, due partly to the demands of the format. When remolding a webseries into what essentially amounts to a 60-minute movie, of course some things had to go and other things had to be added. But the stoner-comedy tone comes from more than simple name-checks of weed slang; it's derived from the overall formal quality, the way one scene bleeds into the next. The skewed logic of dreams, of cinema, and a good blazed daze all work the same way, ferrying characters from one scene to the next without realizing how they got there. The device of time travel could work as a canny metaphor for the hazily transportive quality of a potent bong rip, but the overall look and feel of the show reflects a lucidity that doesn't quite match the topic at hand.
Working in the show's favor is the fact that it's really, really funny. The comedic sensibility has been transferred from Broad City virtually unchanged, still playing on the natural patter between extremely close buddies, this time with cousins instead of besties. Downs and Glazer, longtime partners on the comedy circuit, have chemistry for millennia. (Which raises the question of why they've rarely shared scenes together on Broad City.) There are smaller, assorted treasures to behold as well: Jeff inadvertently sealing his cousin's laptop shut as if his reproductive material were rubber cement, the inexplicable boob-stabbing, and Jeff's "Gangnam Style" dance. (More on that below.) In the most pragmatic sense, Time Traveling Bong constitutes an hour-long opportunity for Downs and Glazer to be funny, and it might not need to be much more than that. But I ended up watching all the episodes in one sitting, so it's safe to say that it definitely is.
The crux of "The Beginning" is the feminist bent it applies to the Salem witch hysteria, a culturally sanctioned method to dispose of undesirable women. Sharee's immediate imprisonment and systematic torture draws a clear contrast with Jeff's kingly treatment of feasting, revelry, and other such bacchanalia. Glazer, Aniello, and Downs have never been shy about their feminist and intersectional principles on Broad City, and here, they spin a dark chapter of pre-American history into a respectable allegory for the politics of being respectable.
If I have a major complaint about "The Beginning," its the episode's odd sense of pacing. It's not odd in a pleasing way, like a person under the influence might appreciate. Instead, it stops and starts at peculiar moments, as dictated by the commercial-break beats of basic cable. The three installments play much better when viewed as a whole, and it's only a matter of time until Comedy Central runs them as a complete unit. For now, there's only one day to wait between episodes. Hope you've got another one rolled to pass the time.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- Jokes about "Gangnam Style" are so dated that they can be either brutally unfunny or hilarious in spite of themselves. Paul W. Downs in colonial garb teaching a group of colonists how to do the ride-the-pony move is the second type.
- Donnie, Sharee's evil boyfriend, presents an unusually dense concentration of pure awfulness. With every sentence that comes out of his mouth, he reveals new terrible details of his life. Approximately every fifth word that comes out of his mouth makes the audience detest him more. In about two minutes of screen time, he has already secured his place next to Roy from The Office and Dennis from 30 Rock in the annals of contemptible TV boyfriends.
- Robert Eggers's recent horror film The Witch was great and all, but it would've been demonstrably better if any of the characters had said, "The balls of Beelzebub have bounced upon her chin."
- "I can't get off without HD porn, you know that! It's the only good thing about 2016!" Truer words are seldom spoken. The teens of a mere decade ago would gape in awe at modern advances in masturbatory technology.
- As a former employee of the Salem Witch Museum, I am duty-bound to nitpick the scenes set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and point out that the dunking-in-water method of testing witchcraft was used exclusively in Europe. Bonus points for alluding to the execution of Giles Corey by pressing, though!
- The weird thing about Time Traveling Bong is that it actually plays better sober than under the influence, unlike Broad City. The moments of pointed cultural criticism sprinkled throughout the show are vital, but they're mild downers, and don't sit so well with a mellow high. If you're stoned and looking for something a little trippier to watch, try The Forbidden Room, or sniff out Anna Faris's idiotically inspired Smiley Face.