You can blame Bernie Su for the new, improved (?) and fantastically terrible punny title for my web series review column. However, he knows what he’s doing with pliers and a sledgehammer, so I’d just not make a federal case of it.
I am not the biggest fan of puppets, but I would not go so far as to say that puppets and I have a dislike of one another. When done right, a puppet act can showcase brilliance to a universal audience. But often what happens is:
- The novelty of having cute-looking inanimate objects talk about shocking things wears thin quickly,
- The use of puppets try to take the focus away from weakly written humor, or
- It’s just made for a very narrow audience, and was never meant to appeal to me, anyway.
Exit Row easily sidesteps the first pothole. We’ll talk about the other two later, but let’s get into the breakdown. The show follows characters Chuck and Ralph, two (thankfully) empty air sickness bags as they sit in neighboring airline magazine pockets. From the press release, they “grapple with everything from love, betrayal, friendship, identity, in-flight etiquette, and life ad nauseum from the perspective of a seat back pocket.”
Production of the show is ridiculously simple, and Puppet Heap’s puppeteers James Godwin and Tim Lagasse smartly don’t try to do too much. They absolutely know their stuff – pretty much every major puppet act you’ve seen, they’ve had a hand in it – including a Chappelle’s Show episode, which, unfortunately, contained my least favorite sketch they had (see: problem #1, not that it was the puppeteers’ fault). So it’s no surprise that on Exit Row, lighting, sound, and the puppet work are all great, particularly after the first episode, where they panned the dialogue to different channels, providing a sense of space in audio form.
And that’s not an easy feat – making two air sickness bags appear lifelike and work with the audio of the dialogue is a pain in the ass. The puppeteers clearly have their act together – Chuck and Ralph aren’t going big, and they avoid playing the material so subtly that you’re bored visually. I believe the characters are distinct and amiable, aided greatly by two voice actors who clearly know what they’re doing.
So what’s the problem?
This is where I’m a bit confused. The material isn’t really taking any new spins on, well, anything, but it’s not necessarily bad, either. It creates the illusion of talking about adult things, but would never go beyond a PG-13 rating. It feels as though the writers wanted to have this show to really make an intelligent, funny, adult-oriented puppet series, but for some reason, couldn’t commit completely to that premise.
There are jokes about Salma Hayek and our characters falling in love with whomever’s on the nearest magazine cover, which, at least for the first five episodes, never end. The material isn’t the deepest, and would be good for a couple of two-minute eps, but they’re going into that well too frequently, but never really saying anything.
Episode Four, “Sock!” (above) does have some genuinely funny moments, because it’s largely not talking about celebrity crushes, but judging the unseen/unheard passenger on the plane. It’s there that the comedy well runs deep, even if talking about air flight is number one on the Stand-Up Comedy Cliché List.
For a show that won’t have more than two main characters – though who knows what they’ll add – the comedy occurs when Chuck and Ralph are riffing on a particular topic and building on each others’ jokes. How I Met Your Mother does this to great effect, as does Adult Swim’s Dog Vs. Cat. The latter model, I feel, is the one Exit Row would benefit most from following – not in tone or topic, but in format.
So, is this a show for me? I don’t think I’ll be going out of my way to watch it, but it’s a pleasant way to kill a few minutes when you’re taking a break from work.
Win, Fail or Trainwreck: It barely nets a Win. It held my attention, there weren’t any glaring problems, but the middlebrow humor’s not particularly noteworthy. There are a couple of belly laughs, and after the fifth episode of “Joanny Depp,” it could take things into a much more adult direction, but after five your premise and tone should pretty much be established; I don’t expect them to push the envelope with this one.