In episode four of Adult Swim’s Decker: Unclassified, which aired in July 2016, special agent Jack Decker (co-creator Tim Heidecker) must take on an evil climatologist perpetrating a “global hoax.” The express purpose of the hoax is to undermine small business. Al Jardine of the Beach Boys guest-stars as the scientist. “There’s some good news about global warming,” Decker seethes before spraying the scientist’s brains across a field of wind turbines. “You won’t need a coat where I’m about to send you.” Finally, in a nod to Don Quixote, he shoots down the turbines, one by one. The screen goes black. A note from Heidecker appears: “Global warming IS a hoax. And if we do not accept that fact, we risk destroying the very foundation of the basis of our country.”
“This show is stupid as fuck,” my husband said.
“Yeah, it’s supposed to be,” I told him. “It’s a Trojan horse.”
From stem to stern, Decker is cheap and dumb — which is how it vivifies the cheap, dumb, utterly self-serving nature of Trumpism. Jack Decker is not just America’s champion but a winner in every sense, as good at songwriting and skiing as he is at defeating terrorism. Decker is far and away the best satire of the Trump era; the clip-art graphics and it-came-free-with-GarageBand soundtrack don’t preclude the show from being subtle and sophisticated. In fact, that misconception is its greatest strength.
The show began in 2014 as a YouTube-series spinoff of Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s web series On Cinema, after Heidecker’s right-wing character (also named Tim Heidecker) becomes so frustrated with liberal Hollywood’s lack of patriotic action movies that he decides to create his own homage to ass-kicking American heroes like himself. If all goes to plan, tales of Decker’s epic heroism will be recounted in front of an adoring audience made up of every single person in the entire nation.
Part of the fun of any Adult Swim series is grooving out on its anarchic sensibility; marquee names and veteran comics appear in what are essentially cracked-out, low-budget student films, like the “Southern Gothic” soap-opera spoof The Heart, She Holler. (Adult Swim’s target demographic skews young.) It makes sense that the greatest Trump satire would hail from this outpost.
When the YouTube series first appeared in 2014, it was years before anyone thought to take Trump seriously. And yet it still functions as a more effective satire of the Trump administration than anything we’ve seen on TV since the inauguration. Saturday Night Live offers biting wit, sans bite or wit, although I understand the liberal boosterism of the show: People are hoping SNL will work like Hanoi Hannah and demoralize the enemy. But who really believes it’s all that clever? Alec Baldwin has always seemed like a bit of a blowhard himself (a 2004 Urban Dictionary entry uses him as an example under the definition of “bloviator”). Since when is having one loudmouth impersonate another a deft satirical masterstroke? The recent “Complicit” perfume sketch featuring Scarlett Johansson is just as lazy, belaboring a single, one-note joke for nearly two minutes and name-checking issues it doesn’t bother to explore in depth. Ivanka Trump is “a champion for women… but like, how?” Which begs the question: This skit is incisive, but like… how?
The faux-news hosts John Oliver and Samantha Bee are no better. Week after week, they tow a recognizable party line, retreading their outrage and rewording their ad hominem attacks. And that’s precisely why liberal viewers watch them. The punchlines may be hit or miss, but at least we know we won’t be challenged. The real point of these performances is to reinforce liberal tribal values, with booming audience laughter signaling to the viewer when she can affirm her membership and shared presumptions with a hearty guffaw. In the end, it’s sarcasm and contempt as team sport. Yet we’re appalled when Fox News does the same. When they do it, it’s bad for the country. When we do it, well, so long as it’s us, who cares? We’re the educated, the urbane, and therefore we get a pass.
It’s not really John Oliver’s or SNL’s fault that their material isn’t stronger. Rote party-line humor is just a bunker for the imagination. At this moment in history, sketch comedy is bringing a knife to a gunfight; a format that approaches the Trump administration’s policies and personalities with predictable outrage or straightforward, almost literal parody can’t account for Trump’s omnipresence in our lives or illustrate his attempt to reshape reality itself to advance his own interests. These shows may be wild within the limited parameters they set for themselves, but that’s a long way from being genuinely imaginative. To really get at Trump’s staggeringly elementary and self-serving view of government, we need a similarly full-scale and comprehensive comic vision.
This is exactly what Heidecker has built across three seasons of Decker, to the point that the show has transcended its sketch beginnings. “A great work of art is like a dream,” Carl Jung wrote in 1933’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. “For all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is never unequivocal. A dream never says: ‘You ought,’ or ‘This is the truth.’ It presents an image in much the same way as nature allows a plant to grow, and we must draw our own conclusions.”
Decker does not explain itself. The show has no laugh track and never names its target. Its presentation is straight-faced: A rightwing hero saves America, again and again. Some close reading is required to get the larger joke — that this is not just a silly sendup but a pointed and even rigorous critique. You could simply enjoy Decker as a spoof of hero-worshipping action series like 24, but the details start to creep up on you. The arch villains, you realize, resemble Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin. Decker himself looks a hell of a lot like a Trump son.
The acting is stilted, the dialogue is bad, the logic is garbled, tautological, absurd. Climate change is a plot to destroy small business. Promoting diversity leads straight to terrorist infiltration. We must close our borders to protect ourselves from “all enemies, foreign or domestic.” The show’s brown-skinned characters long to “live the simple life” and their backgrounds shift at random; a Hawaiian man might sound Jamaican. These people are props, human talking points. In the climate-hoax episode, a black hotel owner voices the Republican fantasy that he and his family have been lifelong Democrats, but are so fed up with federal over-regulation they’ll soon vote GOP.
The most recent season, Decker: Unclassified, is available on iTunes, while the original Decker and its follow-up, Decker: Port of Call: Hawaii, are free to watch on YouTube. At first glance you may think it’s stupid as fuck too, too. But spend some time with it and you’ll realize this low-budget stoner show is a masterpiece. Our unreal age resists cheap shots and glancing blows; Trump is exceptionally difficult to satirize. But Heidecker has managed to do so in incredible style, and I expect the work will survive us all.