I know Mulaney‘s not coming back for a second season. I’ve known since the pilot. But somehow I’m still going to miss it. Mulaney spent so much time trying to be the next Seinfeld, when it should have focused its energies on being the first Mulaney.
For the uninitiated or those only familiar with him through this show, John Mulaney is a fantastic comedian, and is my favorite working stand-up today. I’d even argue he’s a prodigy of sorts: in a profession where most people aren’t worth their salt until they’re thirty, I was sold on him the day I heard his “What’s New Pussycat?” routine. His special New In Town is my favorite non-Carlin comedy special of the past decade, and if you haven’t seen it, stop reading this review long enough to watch it on Netflix. I’m serious, watch it now. I’ll wait.
The fact that Mulaney himself is a great comedian just makes his sitcom debut that much more disappointing. Some issues fall squarely on the shoulders of the programming people at Fox. Starting an untested show at 9:30 on Sunday is a big risk—possibly the most risky primetime slot on TV—and it clearly backfired. The show was eventually relegated to 7:30, a more sheltered spot that allows for a little more room to grow with fewer upfront expectations, especially when it’s liable to get bumped during the football season. But eventually Mulaney was bumped again down to 7:00, also known by many as “dinnertime.” It was Fox’s way of burning out the last few episodes without hurting their ratings too much. The production order was also trimmed down to thirteen episodes mid-production, showing how little Fox trusted this program.
Mulaney seldom rose to become more than the sum of its parts. Don’t get me wrong, the parts were remarkably talented, but the writing team never rose to the occasion. Let’s start with the pilot. It is not particularly good. It sets up the world in which John (the character, played by the actor) is hired by legendary comedian Lou Cannon (actual legendary comedian Martin Short) to write jokes for his ill-defined game show, Celebrity You Guessed It. John lives with his roommates Motif (Seaton Smith), a fellow comedian, and Jane (Nasim Pedrad), a…yoga instructor, or something. Other than that bare outline, the episode didn’t present much. Characters weren’t developed, relationships weren’t described, and most of the jokes just fell flat. Perhaps the most noticeable part of it all was that, most of the episode featured lines taken verbatim from his stand-up routine.
Before I go on, I’d like to address that directly. Here’s a dirty little secret about stand-up: routines don’t come out of thin air. They are tried out countless times before a comedian even thinks about using them in front of a prominent audience. People like George Carlin and Louis CK are revered in the comic community because of their ability to come up with a completely fresh routine every year, and they are so revered because this is not the norm. I know I just got finished calling Mulaney a prodigy, but he’s still young and, more importantly, has dedicated the last couple years of his life to working on and creating this show. Once the show got rolling, he didn’t have a ton of time to come up with new original material. When you’re writing a television show, you can’t lean on old routines. Mulaney was using jokes to craft a narrative, not using the narrative to provide the jokes, and it didn’t work. Seinfeld had a similar set-up, but the fact that Jerry was a comedian was almost incidental; in Mulaney, it’s so involved in the premise that it’s hard to divorce the character from the person, and not in a good way.
The high point of the show’s run was probably the second episode. It showed massive improvements over the pilot, and nearly reached the Seinfeldian ideal the show had so clearly been aiming for. It featured Maria Thayer as a woman with a funny-sounding but noble profession (“doula,” a nonmedical individual who assists pregnant women, is so fun to say), some solid writing, and it established the relationship between the roommates and the origin of their friendship. The story was built around John trying to overcome his fear of childbirth while dating a woman who deals exclusively with it. It was edgy without being exploitative. It also featured two of my favorite lines in the show: Oscar’s “I’m headed up to 50th street. Sometimes if I sit there in a beach chair, a block party will start!” and John’s “I feel about vaginas the way I do about America: I love it, but every once in a while it does something to disgust me.” Someone get that last one on a plaque, or at least a cross-stitch.
After the first few episodes showed incremental improvements, it quickly stagnated. It didn’t get worse, per se, but it stopped actively getting better. John himself is not the most versatile actor, as I’m sure he well knows, but he improved as the show went on. He sounded less stilted and more comfortable in his own skin, especially as he moved further away from the material that made him famous, which really just functioned as a crutch for him to lean on. Even so, his character never rose above the material provided, so we never saw his full potential. The show tried to shore this potential weakness up with more experienced actors and actresses. While each of them put in fine performances with the material they had, they could only elevate the show so much before succumbing to its middle-of-the-road writing. Oscar (Elliott Gould), John’s offbeat elderly gay neighbor, should have been a high point, but turned out to be far better in theory than in practice. The first few episodes indicated that he’d be the one providing the life lessons. Instead, he ended up being little more an oddball side character. He was also the closest the show came to developing a catchphrase (“Oh, hello!”) but after a while his character became less “man with interesting stories” and more “plain ol’ weirdo” and it felt like a waste.
Nasim Pedrad’s turn as Jane was…okay. There was raw potential there, and I sincerely hope she finds steady work in the sitcom world. She only ever had a few defined personality traits, mostly surrounding her hatred of living with comedians and her weird vacuum-like need for male companionship, which were decent but never developed any depth. I’m pretty sure that in the alternate universe where this show gets a second season, Jane becomes a far more stable and interesting character. Motif (Seaton Smith) was another pretty good character who never got much development. The show benefited from his bizarre energy, but he only did so much, and I’m not sure if his standup routines were deliberately confusing or I just didn’t Get It. (Pretty sure it’s the former.) Martin Short was Martin Short as Martin Short (even though his name was Lou Cannon). He’s always a delight, he was a high point of the show much of the time, and I honestly don’t have much negative to say about him. He could make even the dopiest lines sound funny. The guy’s a comedy legend and he’s willing to help out on a project like this, so I can’t rag on that too much. Next. Finally, we land on Andre (Zack Perlman). He was either the high point of the show or completely forgettable, depending on the episode. We get that he was insufferable, and the fact that he was a loser drug dealer added a small layer of comedy, but he never felt very human at his core, and seldom rose beyond “deserving punching bag.” His Halloween costume as a sailor to avoid creepy old men was pretty hilarious, though.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the live studio audience/three camera sitcom situation. I get what John was trying to do: bring back the old style of sitcom he (and most of us) grew up with. It was easily the most subversive thing about his show. In an era when the mockumentary form is so prevalent we’re more used to seeing characters develop through direct address than situational interaction, it’s refreshing. And I loved that he got Ice-T to say that “filmed in front of a live studio audience” line. Maybe Mulaney could have been vanguard for change, but the show didn’t work, and any message it might have held will suffer for it.
In the pilot, Oscar gives John some advice when he finds himself in an undesirable spot. Oscar tells a story in which he thought he was doing well before getting screwed over, but manages to come back home with a nice tea tray. He advises John to try to find the tea tray in bad situations. Although his first crack at a sitcom didn’t work out, I hope John finds his silver tea tray.
Mulaney is, uh, not on TV anymore.