It’s near impossible to discuss Time Traveling Bong without mentioning Broad City, and not just because they share a creative team. Broad City has found fabulous success by throwing a close-knit pair of characters with infinite comedic rapport into a variety of situations to see how they both react, and Time Traveling Bong follows the same basic formula. The main difference? Abbi’s usual role as co-conspirator is replaced with Jeff’s position as an objector. (Glazer’s characters are virtually indistinguishable from one another, beyond the fact that Ilana would never step within a 100-foot radius of Sharee’s boyfriend and has probably had more orgasms than the entire population of the San Fernando Valley.)
“The Middle” randomly deposits Jeff and Sharee in three time periods, and the miniseries is never better than when it lets these two skilled comic actors find their place in a new setting. There may be some truth to that dusty old dictum about half of acting being reacting, after all.
Sharee immediately takes to a group of prehistoric cave-dwellers, claiming her rightful throne as Sex Queen only moments after tumbling into the time period. As they spell out the parallel when arguing amongst themselves, Sharee and Jeff hit a satisfying symmetry in this installment, placing him at the disadvantage while she finds a deranged version of paradise among the perpetually ’rect cave people. This makes an eminent sort of sense, what with Glazer’s characters always having been defined by a streak of primal id. The insatiable sexual appetite, the contempt for personal body-care rituals, the penchant for toplessness — it all adds up to heaven on Earth for Sharee, and tension brews when Jeff yanks her out of it.
Through caveman times, the antebellum South, and Gary, Indiana, during the ’60s, Jeff and Sharee repeatedly follow an Ilana-and-Abbi-tested pattern: going out on a limb to do good, then crashing to the forest floor as that limb snaps beneath them. Their efforts to right some of history’s assorted travesties — slavery, Joe Jackson’s traumatic abuse of his son, Michael — always come from a Millennial-ish sense of social justice, but invariably backfire due to bad luck or, more frequently, their own shortsightedness and laziness. Jeff and Sharee can be self-centered people: She insists on extending their stay in the Cro-Magnon sex party as he is repeatedly raped by cavewomen, he hung her out to dry back in the Salem witch trials, and they agree to return Michael Jackson to his abusive father because raising a kid turned out to be a major drag. This self-involvement is a vital character trait because, to put it simply, perfect people are not funny. Mortal follies create richer characters and riper comedic scenarios. Such as, oh, freeing a trio of slaves with no thought as to what they’d do once dropped off over 100 years later, then leading them straight into the arms of a Vietnam recruiter. They’re only human.
Jeff and Sharee’s pure intentions go awry in an inspired comic scenario that’s as surreal as this ludicrous premise can allow. After sending their slave pals out of the frying pan and into the fire (“We win Vietnam, don’t we?”) Jeff and Sharee decide to intervene in the famously troubled childhood of the King of Pop himself, a pint-sized Michael Jackson. Their bad ideas ping-pong off of one another, becoming denser and more powerful, until this particular scheme culminates with them snatching the boy in a burlap sack and taking him to a motel. The show briefly toys with a tricky metaphysical ethics puzzle, weighing one boy’s innocence against a sweeping legacy of music that changed countless lives, before it arrives at the troubling question: Is an artist’s suffering ultimately justified if their creative output is as groundbreaking, as essential, as classic as Michael Jackson’s? No, “The Middle” concludes, but it quickly hustles into weirder and more riotous territory.
The back half of this segment transitions into a daffy parody of the domestic status quo of the Mad Men era, with White Daddy, White Mommy, and Pint-Sized Michael Jackson forming a Looney Tunes version of the nuclear-family unit. They manage to keep this up for a surprisingly long while — all the way into 1964 — before an inevitable breakdown under the weight of stifling societal norms. Just as they sheepishly admit to their freed slave pals that, a century later, things are only slightly better for black men and women, a year spent in the past gives Jeff and Sharee firsthand witness to how bad life used to blow. She definitely gets the short end of the stick, forced to settle for PTA meetings, vibrating-belt exercise machines, and sanitary pads that look like surgical masks. With all that in mind, they agree that life has measurably improved in every way since an era many romanticize as “the good ol’ days.”
Broad City has made a habit of incorporating a moral dimension to Abbi and Ilana’s misadventures, but Time Traveling Bong practically turns the stoner comedy into an ethical parable. The #wokest of intentions still yield calamitous results for these two dinguses; try as they may to tidy up whatever corner of the space-time continuum their magic bong spits them into, their efforts to be inoffensive often have worse consequences than if they had done nothing at all. (Not a far cry from the perilous ease with which a respectful dialogue on the minefield of identity politics can take a turn toward the insensitive, even accidentally.) Jeff and Sharee are far from perfect, unworthy of determining the course of history by their own admission, but they’re decent-hearted people trying their best to do good in the world.
When they can muster the energy to get off the couch, that is.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- I have no objections to the physics of a bong that travels through time, but asking the audience to believe that Jeff could successfully hit a bong while running is a bit much.
- “Also, publishing rights — buy the Beatles’ music. Just a little tip from White Daddy.” There’s an Emmy-darling prestige project buried deep in the bizarre family life Jeff and Sharee build for lil’ Michael Jackson.
- The hilarious contrast of Glazer’s excited read of “All this red meat made my periods come back! I’ve had two rock-solid ones already!” against Downs’s palpable concern in ” … we’ve been here a week” once again raises the question of why these two never have scenes together in Broad City.
- This segment (I hesitate to call them “episodes,” since they are clearly divvied-up sections of a discrete whole) really clarifies how essential Google has become to modern life. Just try to imagine living without Google. I can’t.
- Paul W. Downs, comin’ in hot with the Nell ref!
- I’ve only been to a Wawa on two occasions, and both times, the “hamburger-hot dog” looked like something for a dog or teething infant to gnaw on.