In the career of niche icon David Cross, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret has, until now, been something of an anomaly. Though the IFC series, last seen a full four years ago, has its defenders, it’s one of the few projects with Cross at the helm that may be firmly niche, but certainly isn’t iconic. Todd Margaret doesn’t enjoy the high regard of either Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s lunatic sketch showcase Mr. Show or Cross’ brief moment in the (relatively) mainstream spotlight, Arrested Development — yet it’s nonetheless joining those series as the third Cross project to earn a revival in four years.
Unlike Arrested Development‘s experimental fourth season, Todd Margaret isn’t an essential PR effort by a burgeoning industry player seeking to set itself apart from the network competition; IFC, whose slogan is “Always On, Slightly Off,” has been doing its low-key, insistently quirky thing for years. Nor is it a nostalgic, one-off romp in the vein of With Bob and David, also on Netflix, which aired the last episode of its original run as Mr. Show 17 years before the revival, not four. Instead, the new Todd Margaret proves to be something more intriguing: a genuine reboot that aims to take a preexisting property in a new direction of Cross’ own volition, not one imposed by its stars’ conflicting schedules.
For those who need a refresher, the original Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret was a sad-sack, normcore cringe comedy in the vein of The (British) Office that grew steadily more absurd over each of its six-episode runs. In an extreme version of the Peter principle, mild-mannered Portland temp Todd Margaret (Cross) is tasked with selling a noxious North Korean energy drink called Thunder Muscle to the UK market by classic executive D-bag Brent Wilts (Will Arnett, master of the classic executive D-bag role). The show’s titular poor decisions ensue and then escalate, leading to a finale that doesn’t exactly lend itself to continuing the series.
David Cross, however, is not someone to let straightforward plot logic get in the way of a good idea. So he waves off Todd Margaret‘s original conclusion in a way so hilariously cliché it functions as a joke in itself: it was all a dream! The real Todd Margaret isn’t an insecure, incompetent moron who’d rather lie his way into a nuclear apocalypse than admit he’s in over his head; he’s Cross in a hairpiece, playing the same stock character Arnett did the first time around, albeit slightly shaken by his nightmare on the eve of a big business trip.
The new Todd Margaret is full of callbacks to the original, or as Todd thinks of it, his “dream”: his love interest Alice (Sharon Horgan, of Catastrophe) is also interested in molecular gastronomy, bit players appear on the street, jokes recur. This means that, different as this new incarnation is, there’s not much in Todd Margaret Season 3 for newcomers — which is gutsy but too bad, because the show really is different this time around. Though, as the episode titles suggest (“Todd Margaret” Parts 1 and 2, then “The Decisions of Todd Margaret,” then “The Poor Decisions…” and so on), Todd’s on an even sharper downward trajectory than the first time around, the fact that he starts at an advantage makes his descent into chaos feel both earned and easier to watch. Veep-level insults like “I’ll get to that on the 33rd of Fuckuary” and new cast members like 30 Rock‘s ever-cheery Jack McBrayer as Todd’s in-office punching bag are nice bonuses.
As Cross’ refusal to provide an easy entry point for new viewers indicates,Todd Margaret is still insistently its own creation, a strange marriage of British and American comic sensibilities — it was originally created as a pilot for the UK’s Channel 4 in 2009 — that comes and goes as its creator pleases. But its reboot, and accompanying shift in register from the humor right down to the noticeably brighter color palette, is easily placed in the context of a television landscape that is increasingly less tied down by the obligation to keep the same narrative, or even the same characters, from season to season. The phenomenon started at the upper echelons of American prestige TV, with True Detective, Fargo, and the less revered but far more popular American Horror Story. Now it appears to be trickling down, or at least outward, to other corners of the serialized storytelling universe.
Todd Margaret still isn’t essential viewing, but it is offering something more than a retread of its older self, which can’t be said of every property due for resurrection in the immediate future. It’s also a testament to the liberating possibilities of a format where anthologies are increasingly the norm (not that David Cross has ever felt too restricted by norms in the first place) and the fact that sometimes stories are actually worth revisiting — even without the epic scope, or profits, of a mega-franchise.
Todd Margaret premieres tonight at 10 pm on IFC.