Comedy Central’s renaissance has been an endearing — and funny, literally — thing to watch. The network has always had some great original programming, but in the past few years, it’s reached incredible highs and boasted a virtually untouchable winning streak. Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer are sources of the funniest and most feminist comedy on television, Nathan For You and Review mine irresistible humor from the awkwardest of situations, Key & Peele is bulletproof (so much so that it’s getting the SNL treatment: a sketch is being adapted into a film), and Kroll Show (which ended on a beautiful note last night) performed previously unseen feats with the genre of sketch comedy. Tonight, Comedy Central tries its hand at highly serialized situational comedy with Big Time in Hollywood, FL and the results are much better than expected. This joke-a-minute, meticulously shot, and impressively plotted comedy is a perfect addition to the network: manically energetic, manically funny, and just plain manic.
Big Time in Hollywood, FL starts off innocently enough, revolving around two creative dreamers who want to become famous filmmakers. Brothers Jack (Alex Anfanger, the series co-creator along with Dan Schimpf) and Ben (Lenny Jacobson) are nearing 30 and still living at home until their parents, Diana and Alan (Kathy Baker and Stephen Tobolowsky, both uproariously funny in their roles), sit them down for that familiar “you have to move out” talk. It quickly becomes clear that this isn’t another charming show about post-grad life or 20-somethings learning how to grow up: Jack immediately blurts out, “Fuck you, Dad,” and tries to convince Diana to divorce Alan instead. With two weeks to get jobs and find a place, the brothers become desperate and — true to their obsession with the crazy movies they want to make — hatch a plan to get $20,000 from their parents.
Revealing too many details will certainly spoil the fun of the series, which is just one crazy escalation after another. The brothers’ convoluted plan involves convincing the parents that Ben is an addict and enlisting an actor (Ben Stiller, an executive producer) to pretend to be a drug dealer who has come to collect the $20,000. But the plan goes horribly, hilariously, graphically wrong, resulting in one of the craziest leaps in sitcom-pilot history. There is such a jarring tragedy — the kind of over-the-top bloody payoff that would signal the end of a standalone sketch on, say, Key & Peele — that I kept waiting for the “just kidding!” to pop up or for the episode to hit the rewind button. Whereas most comedies would go for the big joke and then hit reset to start anew in the second episode, Big Time in Hollywood, FL decides to fully commit. The pilot is just the tipping point; it only gets crazier from there.
Comedy Central doesn’t really do serialized series. While there can be running threads throughout shows like Broad City and Review, you can certainly tune in to any stray episode and easily get the basic gist while enjoying the half-hour. With Big Time, the fun is in watching all the building blocks come together as the story escalates to surprising highs, each episode building on the previous one to provide a thorough (and thoroughly hilarious), deftly scripted narrative. The simplicity of being told to move out and get a job somehow results in rehab stays, a federal investigation, an absurd amount of violence, and Cuba Gooding Jr. playing himself — well, a drug-addicted, leopard-print-thong-wearing version of himself. Gooding, by the way, is having so much fun that it’s positively infectious.
Big Time also hits the mark with former film students like me, in cringe-worthy and embarrassingly familiar moments such as the ones where Jack and Ben congratulate themselves on how great their terrible ideas are. The show hooked me early on: A wonderfully, professionally shot cold open that, when the brothers rewatch it later on, is revealed to be nothing more than a low-budget, shaky student film. They, of course, still think it’s the greatest thing ever.
But that’s the plight of the dreamer, a recurring theme throughout the series. They go farther and farther off the rails, their lives increasingly resembling big Hollywood crime flicks as they pass the point of no return. But they are still dreaming about making films, still sure that they will make it big, and still possess an unwavering confidence that is sometimes hard to watch. Yet Big Time never once loses its sense of humor and never once retreats from the inanity.
Big Time in Hollywood, FL is about delusions and mania. It’s a series that traffics in the absurd and makes it impossible for viewers to stop watching. The network was smart to send out the entire series to critics, because it works just as well as a long movie (and a movie within a movie within a sitcom, and… oh, it gets complicated). You can’t get to each subsequent episode fast enough, but you’ll certainly feel satisfied when the season concludes.