comedy review

I Think You Should Leave Remains Impressively Unpredictable

Tim Robinson in I Think You Should Leave season two. Photo: Kevin Estrada/Netflix

I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson is a show about the kinks in the human condition, about the desperate thoughts and feelings we bottle and the odd behaviors we hide in order to look and sound just like everyone else. We all keep up appearances. We curate cool, affable public selves for the benefit of seeming more agreeable to friends, co-workers, and onlookers to avoid arousing suspicion. The goal of a day online is never to be the “main character.” Offline, it’s to stay away from the business end of a camera phone recording a viral video. Attention is nice, but scrutiny is not; we pursue the former and evade the latter. Success is no one noticing this struggle, no one grasping how much of our self-worth is tied up in this elaborate theater of niceties. I Think You Should Leave is a world where everyone sees every gear turning, every bead of sweat trickling down your forehead, in 4K. Just as The Twilight Zone tells us stories about people slowly coming to painful realizations that science (or magic or spirituality) is less predictable and more dangerous than they’d been led to believe, I Think You Should Leave teases a subtle horror out of everyday people bombing exquisitely as they attempt a high-stakes performance of normalcy in public.

The opening scene of ITYSL’s second season is a perfect encapsulation of the show’s world and humor. An office worker abruptly gets called into a meeting before he can bite into the foot-long hot dog he bought for lunch. He trots into the conference room moments later, left arm akimbo, the sleeve of his blazer swinging low. It’s the hot dog. He’s going to try to sneak and eat a foot-long two seats away from the boss while feigning interest in the corporate jargon holding up his lunch. Because this show is a pocket universe where everything that can go wrong inevitably will go wrong, Pat, our protagonist, literally chokes while trying to play it cool, in a callback to the sketch in season one where a guy is so starstruck by a famous guest at a friend’s dinner party that he keeps on schmoozing while fighting for air as he chokes on his food. This is supposed to be a normal scene where nothing out of the ordinary happens, but our protagonist’s staunch objection to the unspoken laws of office etiquette introduces a light absurdity that is ramped up every time he turns down a chance to explain his very simple tiff with the universe.

ITYSL is also a show about preposterous but still somewhat plausible types of guy, well-meaning stiffs straining to abate chaos, many of whom are played by Robinson, co-writer and co-creator and a lead actor who can play both the straight man and the feckless comic relief, but who prefers to trip off the perfect sequence of circumstances that transforms one into the other. The guy who ruins his buddy’s birthday party after eating a gift receipt is only hoping he bought a nice present; the one whose marriage nearly ends when a sarcastic magician puts a damper on a date night is only trying to be a good sport. ITYSL puts its characters in arm’s reach of simple goals, then unleashes offbeat setbacks. The drama would end the minute our protagonists stopped performing being okay with everything happening and simply leveled with us or asked for help. Pride won’t let them. Hilarity ensues.

The shorter sketches don’t try much else. In the first season’s premiere, Robinson, in good spirits after a promising job interview, slowly pries the building’s front door off of its hinges because he thinks that’s less embarrassing than admitting he can’t remember how to open it. The second season stages a “Little Buff Boys Competition” at a company banquet, where the objective seems to be to stoke discomfort by forcing the boss to pick a buffest boy. Sometimes sketches poke fun at popular culture, and sometimes they only care to lead us into a bit of intense cringe. There’s no way to tell what the payoff will be (or if you should even expect a payoff) except to follow Robinson’s maniacs to the ends of their worrying trains of thought. The “Coffin Flop” and “Capital Room” sketches lampoon reality television by playing up a ridiculous premise with a straight face, and also by playing a familiar one absurdly. You may need to have seen Shark Tank to appreciate the fussy entrepreneurs of “Capital Room,” but “Coffin Flop”’s footage of corpses bursting loose at funerals while Robinson begs viewers to help save the raunchy show might be the new season’s funniest gag. The sketch about the professor who invites students to dinner and spends the whole night salivating over Robinson’s sandwich is really just a protracted setup for a wild cunnilingus joke, but the “Calico Cut Pants” saga in the second season is a fun house of ITYSL conventions: the extremely specific gag clothing item, the office worker making too much noise, the overly eager Tim Robinson sales pitch. The show understands its building blocks and gets its kicks now from rearranging them like Legos.

The first season of ITYSL was a pleasant surprise, a quick watch and a laugh riot that left an immediate mark on internet humor. The Hot Dog Guy meme from the “Brooks Brothers” sketch — “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this!” — is still going strong. You still see a stray “Oh my God, he admit it!” from time to time. The show has fans and lore now. It’s making fun of itself as much as anyone else in its second season. Sam Richardson sells the “Little Buff Boys Competition” song just as seriously as he did with “Baby of the Year”; the funniest part of the sequel sketch is the quick close-up on his sweat-drenched wig. (Bring back Detroiters!) Last season’s “Christmas came early” scene gets two callbacks this year with “Capital Room” (which, at its best, is another serving of Patti Harrison yelling absurdities) and the full-blown Santa Claus sketch where the North Pole legend, now a budding action-movie star, makes a press junket incredibly awkward when he refuses to answer any questions about the holidays. You can tell the writers are having a blast, especially in the “Cars Are Really Safe” scene, where teens watching a cautionary car-safety video begin to pick apart the sketch-within-a-sketch, and in the “Qualstarr” scene, whose courtroom proceeding feels like a table read of a typical ITYSL gag about Tim giving the hard sell on a garish new menswear item, as if the writers had imagined having to explain their humor to a judge.

ITYSL is still absurdly funny. Some of the sketches don’t land — the office-toilet prank, the “Bore of the Worlds” bit, and the overlong episode-four open about the guy, played by Paul Walter Hauser, who bails on a boys’ night out racked with guilt about making fun of his wife all feel like precious wasted minutes in a season that’s really only 100 minutes long — but there are always enough laughs to keep them afloat. The Santa scene starts to drag; then he says he’s “seen every cock on the planet,” and you laugh so hard you nearly forget your name. The dry one where Robinson flips a table in the office is saved by the strange way he keeps saying “Julie.” His Blues Brothers routine beats you down into submission. Robinson, Richardson, Harrison, and the roster of comedy regulars who appear in the second season (including John Early, Brandon Wardell, Shawntay Dalon, Tim Heidecker, and Bob Odenkirk) strive to make even the silliest lines pop. The core writing braintrust of Robinson, Harrison, co-creator Zach Kanin, and John Solomon has mostly got its pacing down. When this show is firing on all cylinders, it feels like finding a liminal space adjoining the cautionary absurdism of smart anthology series like Twilight Zone and the natural disjointed weirdness of public-access television (or else, Tim and Eric’s take on that). It feels unpredictable. It feels like one of the best sketch shows out.

I Think You Should Leave Remains Impressively Unpredictable