In the pilot for FX’s The Comedians, Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, meet for dinner at their agents’ insistence to discuss working together on a new comedy series. The two arrive at a restaurant hesitant about their presumptive partnership (Gad: “When I found out Billy Crystal wanted to work with me, nobody was more excited than my grandparents”). Not surprisingly, the meeting that ensues is a disaster, filled with awkward silences, misdirected laughter, and lapses in understanding: After Crystal arrives at the punchline of a lengthy yarn, Gad blankly replies, “I don’t understand the structure of the joke,” and the other’s twinkling face crumples into disappointment. The scene engenders in the viewer the unease customary of cringe comedy, but here it’s a comfortable discomfort, tempered by an awareness that these two characters, graceless as their interactions may be, still maintain a guarded admiration for one another. Sure enough, the next scene presents them bonding over the awkwardness of the meeting and bouncing jokes off one another to defuse the earlier tension.
That reluctance to luxuriate in abrasive discomfort positions The Comedians as the latest series to soften—or defang—the prickly, confrontational style of comedy pioneered by the likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office (particularly the U.K. version). Those shows confronted us with egoists whose lack of self-awareness fueled their churlish behavior, but that behavior, so clearly indexical of a deeper dissatisfaction, also made them recognizably human. No matter how grotesque, it was rooted in a powerless sorrow we’ve all known, and that sorrow—and their inability to fully remedy it—lent those characters a pathos that humanized them even at their most hideous. The Comedians, on the other hand, anchored by nice-guy incarnate Crystal, presents the viewer with characters too generic to too make us truly squirm. It studiously avoids putting its leads in any situation where their behavior might seriously call into question their likeability, and as a result, the show’s moments of discomfort are unmemorable, unconnected to a larger expression of its characters’ own inner struggles.
Framed as a backstage mock-doc that follows Crystal and Gad as they put together their show and, in the process, develop a rapport, the series pales in comparison to the similarly themed Extras and The Comeback, both of which ridiculed the show-biz world that The Comedians merely smirks at. Here, the Hollywood milieu isn’t an object of satire, but a mere backdrop for its characters’ antics. Likewise, the show’s individual plotlines (which among other things, find the pair getting stoned, having dinner at Crystal’s house, and going out for a night on the town) feel too familiar and outdated: An episode where Crystal and Gad nervously try to address their staff’s lack of diversity merely recapitulates white men’s anxiety about race. The episode, unfortunately titled “Orange You the New Black Man,” opts to simply make light of it rather than invite a critique of the way we dance around the issue of race.
Crystal and Gad are both consummate showmen, and though much of the comedy revolves around their musty odd-couple shtick, the two are smart enough to underscore their characters’ similarities as much as their differences, Gad frequently positioning himself as a younger, more anxious version of Crystal, while Denis O’Hare has a sharp turn as a laughter-averse network president tasked with overseeing the show-within-a-show’s production, a job he approaches with a deadpan sincerity out of which occasionally peeks a childlike glee. But the most revelatory performance belongs to Stephnie Weir as Crystal and Gad’s neurotic producer. A bundle of facial tics and manic energy, her diffident proclamations tinged with a Southern lilt, the MADtv alum suggests Amy Sedaris at her most fearless. Whether grieving over the death of her dog or dealing with the return of an old flame, Weir skillfully integrates her outsize comic persona into the show’s documentary aesthetic; she’s loud and sometimes brash, but never obtrusive, and she steals every scene she’s in (which, thankfully, is many). She’s a bright spot in a series with too few of them, and sets into relief just how over-familiar the show’s trappings are. The Comedians boasts razor-sharp performances, but is ultimately toothless.