The first episode of W/ Bob & David, a not-quite-sequel, not-quite-reunion (continuation?) of cult favorite Mr. Show, begins with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross bounding out of a low-budget “real-time travel machine,” where they have been steadily aging, in real time, since the end of Mr. Show. A lot, of course, has happened in those intervening years: Odenkirk established himself as a serious dramatic actor with Breaking Bad, Cross did Arrested Development, released three standup albums, and got unfortunately Chipwrecked. But the time machine, it turns out, works pretty well: other than age, the great leveler of us all, not much has changed since 1998.
Thanks to Netflix’s singular ability to revive the dead, Odenkirk and Cross have gotten (most of) the gang back together, and they’re doing what they always did: inventing absurd premises, and playing their internal logic to their even-more-absurd conclusions. “It’s just been really cool to see those guys back doing the thing that they were born to do,” waxes writer/performer Scott Aukerman in the making-of special that runs as the series 5th episode, “which is get in front of crowds and act silly and really sell these pieces.” “Silliness” is an incredibly apt description of what they’re doing. I do not mean this as dismissive; they were, and are, master craftsman of silliness. They turn silliness into finely-tuned art. They take silliness and raise the stakes to even more silliness. (Sometimes – and this could be also said of Mr. Show, and sketch in general – it works better than others.)
It’s not that nothing has changed. You can go home again, the show proves, but maybe the curtains are different, and maybe they redid the roof, and also painted it a color that feels a maybe just little too sure of itself. Part of the zany, fuck-the-establishment aesthetic of the original was the extent to which it could feel decidedly like a high school play, with the cast in bad wigs and ill-fitting suits they couldn’t quite fill, as if part of the send-up was the very idea of adulthood. Technically, they were adults then, too, but sixteen years later they are unequivocally grown-ups (still with bad wigs). Because of this, or because tastes (in suits, in television) have changed since the late nineties, or maybe just because it looks slicker, W/ Bob & David is just a little bit less self-consciously theatrical than its predecessor. There are other changes, too: the new show, as Odenkirk himself noted to Rolling Stone, is looser than the old one – sometimes sketches bleed into each other like a classic Mr. Show Möbius strip, and sometimes they just end. And the last sixteen years have given them a whole new set of cultural touchstones to work with: AOL “digital prophet” Shingy (and the concept of digital strategy in general), Top Chef, a new wave of religious extremism.
Like Mr. Show (because this is, essentially, Mr. Show, plus age, minus transitions, times fame), W/ Bob & David is incredibly good at using genre parodies to do something more than just parody the genre in question, though they do that with alarming accuracy, too. A sketch where Odenkirk and Cross play two overly sensitive police officers with too many feelings to pull off a good cop/bad cop interrogation (“He said I was an asshole?,” says Odenkirk, devastated bad cop) is a goofy take on police procedurals, but it’s also a riff on the absurdity of macho performance. (Like Mr. Show’s “Spite Marriage,” a similar peas-in-a-pod, men-with-feelings sketch, it has an unexpected poignancy. Another Cross/Odenkirk strength: secretly sensitive doofuses.) Another sketch uses feel-good daytime talk show trappings, as well as the best child casting in recent history (the angelic Rowan Smyth), to gleefully deconstruct certain religious… inconsistencies: Little Cory is on air to promote his new book about going to heaven, but the God he describes is just a little too all-loving for the adults around him, who are very, very invested in a vision of hell.
Another stand out: an updated “Rooms: The Musical,” a delightfully stupid sketch in which two messy dry cleaner employees and a frustrated customer get together to write a “Broadway-caliber” musical about “a house that tells its story through song!” It’s a sendup of let’s-put-on-a-show montages (technically, also a genre parody), and it works because it’s both joyfully absurd and uncharacteristically earnest (“I’m the stairs/I’m the stairs/am I the only one who cares?” feels hilariously heartfelt); it’s enough fun that you start to think wait, is Rooms: The Musical that bad an idea, even?
But a sketch called “Better Roots,” in which a pompous white director (Cross) shows clips from his revisionist history of slavery, or, as he’d prefer to call it, “helper-ism,” suggests silliness has its limits. It’s sort of an attack on the whitewashing of brutal history to protect the delicate feelings of supposedly liberal white people – I think? – but in taking every possible opportunity for further absurdity (free hugs, an aborted whipping), the target gets murky. Based on Odenkirk’s interview with Rolling Stone, this seems intentional. “I like bringing up challenging topics in a comic way and then kind of breaking them down in a very silly way that makes it hard to know what our point of view is on the subject,” he said, contrasting his own aesthetic to The Daily Show’s penchant for self-congratulatory back pats. “It makes it a challenge for anybody to be angry about it.” But here, that silliness comes off as eerily flip, and one wonders if having a slightly clearer target might, in this case, be an advantage.
W/ Bob & David doesn’t necessarily feel urgent in the way it once did (or so I understand – I think I spent 1995 watching Canadian travel shows about bed and breakfasts), but, as John Wenzel pointed out here, it’s worth keeping in mind that part of the reason it doesn’t feel as groundbreaking is that it “arrives in the shadow of all it influenced.” But for Bob-and-David fans, past, present, and future, it does what it needs to do. And someday, we can only hope, we will finally get the full production of “Rooms: The Musical” we all deserve.