Monday Morning Critic: Two FX comedies

Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.

In this week’s installment: reviews of FX’s “The Comedians” and “Louie.”

In the past, I’ve taken an approach towards pilots that I will occasionally deploy here in the ‘MMC’: The 5 Questions And 500 Words approach. The title pretty much serves as a descriptor: Instead of overloading both you the reader and I the critic with an avalanche of words about all major pilots about to premiere, I’ll cut to the chase as quickly as possible in order to save you time and me some sanity. It’s hopefully a win-win situation. With that in mind, here are another two such reviews.

“The Comedians” premieres on April 9 on FX at 10 pm EST

What’s the premise?

It’s a show-within-a-show premise, wherein we are watching Billy Crystal and Josh Gad attempt to film a sketch comedy show for FX. Crystal and Gad play heightened versions of themselves, and “The Comedians” depicts the trials and tribulations that come from the old and new worlds of comedies trying to come together I think.

But is it funny?

It really isn’t, and it’s a huge bummer.

What’s the show’s biggest problem?

OK, so the primary source of comedic tension comes from the fact that Fictional Crystal doesn’t want to work with Fictional Gad, and even though the pair show flashes of complete brilliances together, more often than not the two get in each other’s way so often that even they eventually realize that this supposed “dream” pairing may look better on paper than in practice. But unfortunately, that ALSO holds true for the show itself, not just the show within the show. Whatever spark led to this pairing rarely makes it onscreen, which mostly makes “The Comedians” seem tone-deaf rather than self-knowing.

Is there any reason to watch at all?

Look, part of this comes from personal preference: I’m just not a huge fan of shows about Hollywood, and so anything directly related to the ins and outs of everyday production don’t play well to me no matter how well-executed. There’s an attempt at a Tim/Pam romance from “The Office” that might ultimately provide this show’s heart-and-soul as well, but there’s little room for that pairing to breathe early on. But I will say that while the first two episodes are pretty dire, things improve steadily over episodes three and four. The fourth in particular has some really charming moments, but unfortunately those happen between guest star Mel Brooks and Crystal. Their scenes together are SO GOOD that one might rightly wish “The Comedians” was the two of them simply improvising for thirty minutes a week.

What does “The Comedians” offer the FX brand?

This is ultimately what I struggle with here: I get what Crystal/Gad get out of this arrangement, but not FX. “The Comedians” doesn’t have the raunchy heart of “You’re The Worst” or the bonkers outlook of “Archer” or the philosophical musings of “Louie.” It simply exists, which makes is a far-cry better than some of the 10/90 shows it has recently greenlit. But simply mocking “Anger Management” in-show during “The Comedians” doesn’t mean this show is edgy. It simply means “The Comedians” has the trappings of a vicious satire without any actual bite. If you already know actors are selfish and networks are greedy, then there’s little to learn from “The Comedians.” That would be fine if Crystal/Gad worked as a central pair, but I rarely enjoyed their screentime together, and not for reasons the show would like.

***

“Louie” premieres on April 9 on FX at 10:30 pm EST

What’s the most important thing to know about this season?

The opening credits are back!

Wait, why is that the most important thing?

It’s a subtle nod to the fact that “Louie” as a show returns to what I think is its real strength: Telling short, self-contained stories that occasionally ripple into other ones in unexpected ways. I know many loved the fourth season’s ambition, but I found it bit off far more than it could chew. If anyone could have pulled off producing a two-hour Woody Allen-esque film over six episodes, it would have been Louis CK. But he didn’t. Now we know no one can. And that’s fine! I’d still love to see him make a two-hour art film. But for now, I want him to make the best “Louie.”

So is season five a return to form?

That’s a dangerous phrase, as one of the strengths of the show comes from its lack of template. That sounds like a strange thing to say after semi-slamming last season, but I appreciated the risk more than I enjoyed the execution. I’d much rather be disappointed that way than by someone adhering too close to a model that works but allows no room for variation. When an episode of “Louie” begins, literally anything is possible, and that makes for exciting television.

Are there any episodes this season that will cause as many thinkpieces as “Pamela (Part 1)” last year?

You betcha! There’s at least one episode in the four offered up for review that will spark as many. I’ll say that while “Pamela (Part 1)” ultimately turned me off the show to the point where I couldn’t even finish the season, the potentially controversial episode this season has some very intriguing things to say about gender, power, autonomy, and emotional violation that line up dramatically with what I imagine Louis CK’s real-life feminist intent actually is. It’s alternatively beautiful and absolutely crushing and ends with one character’s hysterical laughter. In other words, it’s all things “Louie” wrapped into one.

So you’re totally back on board this year?

I was never truly off, even when I wasn’t actually enjoying it. “Louie” interrogates life and the world around us more than any show on TV, and those interrogations leads his character into absolutely unbelievable situations. But they are only unbelievable in that we ourselves are rarely willing to engage and ask questions about other people, and therefore we never see certain pockets of humanity. “Louie” lives in those pockets, and what’s inside them is what the show offers us on a weekly basis. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, there’s still nothing else like it, even after five seasons.