FX is understandably excited about The Comedians. Nine of the first season’s 13 episodes were sent out to critics, and the TV spots are irritatingly inescapable. The combination of FX and FXX have produced a string of strong sitcom hits (most focus on the darker side of humor; even It’s Always Sunny, the most straightforward comedy, gets impossibly dark at times) so it’s natural to optimistically assume The Comedians would follow suit. But it’s a step back for a network that is usually so forward thinking with its programs (the disjointed surrealism of Louie, the surprisingly well-executed adaptation of Fargo, the pull-no-punches approach of The Americans). With The Comedians, FX wrong believed that there is a high demand for a Billy Crystal/Josh Gad buddy comedy vehicle, for yet another “behind the scenes” show-within-a-show, and for another entrant in the increasingly-tired mockumentary genre.
In The Comedians, Crystal and Gad play fictionalized versions of themselves — as with many such characters, they’re more annoying, more self-centered, and more “out there” than their real selves (recent examples include Kelly Ripa in Broad City, Cuba Gooding Jr. in Big Time in Hollywood, FL . The duo who have a sketch show, BIlly & Josh, on FX. The whole thing is preposterous: Within the world of The Comedians, FX will only give Billy the series if Josh is on board, too. But the two men dislike each other and regularly butt heads on set, their disagreements ranging from the creative (differing comedic senses, Josh ad-libbing during a sketch) to the petty (parking spaces, superstitions during basketball games). It is not very enjoyable to watch.
There are some positives to be mentioned, particularly the minor characters, who are more compelling than the leads, and exist within more interesting narratives. There’s Kristen (Stephnie Weir), an anxious, shaky-voiced producer trying to keep both the show and herself together while dealing with Billy and Josh; Mitch (Matt Oberg), the sketch show’s head writer whose excitement-turned-quick-disappointment at writing for a possible Mel Brooks appearance is one of the series’ most resonant beats; and Esme (Megan Ferguson), an already-jaded PA who, while not the most developed character, gets some great (and familiar) lines as she repeatedly expresses her disinterest in Mitch’s improv troupe. But the problem is that the episodes are, naturally, focused on Billy and Josh — and their interpersonal conflicts just aren’t that engaging.
Crystal and Gad do fine, acceptable work as their fictional versions, and both appear to enjoy stepping out of themselves for a bit. The problem is that the script isn’t exactly inventive or breaking the mold. The passive-aggressiveness, the unspoken competition between the two, the mockumentary format that finds our characters shrugging toward the camera in lieu of delivering a punchline, the sketches punctuating episodes (I’m not quite show if the Bily & Josh show is supposed to be terrible or if the sketches are supposed to be funny?), the self-aware take on the lack of diversity within the program (Billy & Josh has one Asian writer who is “off white at best”) — these are all things that we’ve seen before.
There is also an over-reliance on the generational divide — Billy and Josh’s fans don’t necessarily overlap, as evidenced by a late series birthday episode in which Billy bombs in front of a young crowd — and the predictable humor (Billy and Josh get too stoned and wander around a grocery store).
It is worth noting that, as the series goes on, The Comedians does smooth out some of its rough edges — I did enjoy the sillier jokes, such as the occasional reference to Gad’s failed 1600 Penn sitcom (the multiple shots of that awful The Strain advertisement, however, were as horrible as when the posters first appeared). But while the show at least becomes consistently watchable, perhaps something of a comfort food program for those who still have fuzzy feelings toward Billy Crystal, it never quite gets good, especially not when stacked against its peers on FX/X (pairing The Comedians with the nearly sublime Louie is a cruel move.) I’m wondering how I would feel if I were watching it week-to-week, rather than powering through; it often felt like I was forcing myself to enjoy it to justify why I binged nine disappointing episodes. There are no doubts that The Comedians will find its audience, just as most FX programs tend to do, but I’m fine with sitting out the rest of the series.