Fox’s ‘Seinfeld’-Obsessed, Multi-Cam ‘Mulaney’ Is the Normcore of Sitcoms

Imagine if the ’90s wrote a show about the future and got it sort of right. Not that this show would necessarily be great on its own: indeed, you can, instead of imagining, just watch the not-great first episode of Mulaney this Sunday on Fox, where people talk about Xanax like so many 2014-ers, but in front of a live audience! Or people compare their menstrual cycles to Game of Thrones winters, but there’s a live audience! Or where 30-somethings in New York need three roommates in one apartment, but there’s a live audience! Over-medicating, oversharing, and overcrowded apartments may be the jam(s) of New York life in this day and age, but, with its stylized anachronisms, Mulaney removes itself — and us — from our own reality.

What we’re seeing in this multi-cam sitcom about a comedian and his three friends is antithetical to the way we’ve televisually reimagined our “reality.” For the last decade or so, we’ve been told that — at least if we want to identify with a cooler, realer televisual reality — that “nowness” is filmed on fucking location in fucking Greenpoint, and that no one dare provide their omniscient fucking laughter (those who have dared tend to, you know, kinda suck: Big Bang Theory, 2 Broke Girls, Hot in Cleveland, How I Met Your Mother ). For a new show to record in multi-cam in front of a live studio audience seems an automatic plea for obsolescence. But this is exactly what former SNL writer and standup comedian John Mulaney was going for. It really reads, and Mulaney wholly wants it to read, as though Mulaney himself time-traveled back two decades, revealed the basic pop-cultural and socioeconomic factors or 2010’s America, and said, “Make me the next Seinfeld.

Oh, because that’s the show’s other gimmick; not only is it an homage to a dying sitcom style, but specifically to Seinfeld, the one show that, with its groundbreaking amplifications of minutiae, transcended its own existence within a cardboard New York and its own cardboard representation of “ethnic” characters, and manages, despite the short-shelf-life of cardboard, to still — whether you like it or not — be quite alive and relevant in the cultural conversation.

So it doesn’t seem like too much of a leap to question whether Mulaney is doing more than pioneering a televisual “normcore,” using its raised eyebrow to catapult itself onto a pedestal just above shows that are still using the same format. Perhaps, in fact, it’s too easy a connection to make, and perhaps I’m simply being swayed by my notion of “normcore” as a cult of sartorial Seinfeldian imitation. But the “new sitcom” is something we’ve been discussing for such a long time that that too seems to need some reconsideration in order to stay fresh. Indeed, even when TV has become as surreal as Broad City in its most imaginative flights, we expect a simultaneous element of real-world grit. And how long can “real” keep trending? How long before “real” is undermined by the competition to achieve the realest realness, the rawest rawness?

It seems Mulaney was anticipating this, fighting the marked absence of theatricality in the “new sitcom” with a “return” — though it never really went anywhere, except to network inferiority — to the over-the-top characters and relatively episodic narratives of yore, and, you know, now. It’s no comedy of pauses and stammers commingled with rants about the “stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms” rather than jokes; like the Friends and Seinfeld tropes it meta-references so often (note especially Mulaney’s stand-up routines, which are taped right in the middle of his darkened apartment set), it’s far more punchline-oriented.

But just as “normcore” might, in its elitist anti-elitism, reframe George Costanza’s wardrobe with a sense of high-fashionable carelessness that can only be perceived as such when layered over a lanky model’s frame (were I to try a George Costanza look, I’d just look like… George Costanza), so too do Mulaney’s attempts at repurposing an oft-condescended-to form mean that, in order for it to truly achieve that higher-brow-by-way-of-lower-brow appeal its comedy needs to be damn sharp. And it’s really not, except in occasional bursts of excellence.

The character breakdown can similarly be seen through the lens of Seinfeld, and each role — all played by fantastic comic actors — feels like a simulation of sorts. Mulaney is an obvious Jerry, a standup comedian who goes through a girlfriend every episode, with rejections usually based on some misstep or illogical sense of repulsion. Nasim Pedrad is, unfortunately, the only female lead. (Just like on Seinfeld, all female energy is relegated to one sardonic character who platonically hangs with the dudes.) Mulaney’s other roommate, Motif (Seaton Smith) and friend Andre (Zack Pearlman) are combinations of George and Kramer, so stick ’em all together and you’ve got a sitcom on your hands.

Again, it’s hard to criticize a character breakdown that self-awarely set itself up as an homage to tired character breakdowns, except to say that they’re never quite funny or assured enough to transcend their warmly satiric armor. Outside of these stock-characters, Eliot Gould (funny to see him acting in an episode whose subplot centers around Friends) co-stars as the cutely clueless old gay hippie neighbor, and Martin Short plays a lecherous washed-up-comedian-turned-talk-show host. In Short’s character, we see the potential for the show to expand to weirder, better territory, and there definitely is promise, should it decide to break out of its too-small nostalgic shell.

In fact, a lot of the show is endearing and comfortable (again, in the way a dead woman’s lycra you bought at Salvation Army and decided to pair with Jimmy Choos might be endearing and comfortable), and I might keep watching it because of my undiscriminating love of all things ’90s. Does that mean it’s great? At the beginning of each episode, in lieu of a credits sequence, Ice-T — yes, that Ice-T — announces that the show was taped in front of a “live studio audience.” I’m wondering if, later in the season or in the show’s run, Mulaney will give Ice-T more to say about it.