Discomfort humor is hard to get right. Since we first saw the British version of The Office, we across the pond have been trying to distill nervous laughter as if the ingredients were going to expire soon.
WorkingBug.com‘s A Series of Unfortunate People – from what I’ve seen thus far – seems to be playing jump rope with the line between discomfort-for-humor and discomfort-for-discomfort’s-sake. The premise of professional actors “re-enacting” strange incidents amounts to sketch comedy with an overall tonal connection of people who are in the process of major personal train wrecks.
There’s a bit of a disconnect between the first two episodes from a writing standpoint. In “Bargain Birthday,” we see quite a bit of skin-crawling discomfort and a complete lack of understanding from a ridiculously cheap friend during a birthday gathering. Leads Leyna Juliet Weber and Beth Shea (both of whom, along with director Annie Lukowski, write the episodes) sell it well and do a lot of the heavy lifting, but the episode tries a touch too hard to drive a single joke home.
Conversely, “Bad Seed” is a perfect sketch, wherein mothers attempt to prevent a “bad influence” from joining their childrens’ birthday party. In this installment, the surrealism is carefully and slowly cranked up, to the point you buy into the insanity as it unfolds. Some will find the silliness reminiscent of The State.
Production wise, it’s top shelf. While visuals don’t have a particular style, they do the job. Nothing in the construction of these episodes will pull you out of the scene, and that’s all you really want from a variety comedy series. The editing is solid. It keeps the pace moving and the jokes landing. I’m a firm believer editing is the most important thing many comedy series forget about. And it murders the show when done poorly. With this series, however, the creators are starting off on solid footing as far as the cutting room is concerned, and I’m sure that as time goes on they’ll settle further into a groove.
Really, it comes down to the show deciding what kind of show it wants to be. With “Bargain Birthday,” they begin with pretty much nowhere to go, and tried repetition to make the joke come back around, but I don’t think it did. A lot of the humor felt forced, and I half-expected a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall moment where the actors look directly into the camera and tell the audience how funny this is. Meanwhile, with “Bad Seed,” they started small, and throughout the course of the episode, found ways to rachet up the crazy until the conversation goes to its (il)logical extreme.
A Series of Unfortunate People has quite a bit of promise, but the creators will need to decide what niche they’re going for. From what I’ve seen thus far, discomfort comedy doesn’t seem to be the show’s forte, but The State and Whitest Kids U Know style of surrealism seems to fit the program pretty well, and I’d much rather see the show head in that direction.
Win, Fail or Trainwreck: It certainly doesn’t fail at anything, really. If they go the route of “Bad Seed,” they’ve got a solid Win in my book. With actors as two-thirds of the writing room, I’m a little concerned about the series becoming enamored with its own cleverness, and playing more for the acting than the laughs. If they go that route, it’ll be a very slow Trainwreck.
I’m optimistic, though. A Series of Unfortunate People could be a great variety comedy program. Some smart decisions and a bit of polish on the scripts could bring the best out of those involved on all fronts.
Additional comments: And it seems as though they’re going in the correct direction. After writing this review, the creators gave me access to a sneak peak of the third episode, “Family Secret,” which definitely goes the route of light surrealism. I’m more confident in attaching a Win tag to this show.