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The Surrealist Sitcom Revolution

Basking in the low-stakes absurdity of ‘People of Earth,’ ‘The Good Place,’ and ‘Son of Zorn’

(Fox/NBC/TBS/Ringer illustration)
(Fox/NBC/TBS/Ringer illustration)

You could sure use some super-weird TV right now — disarming and surrealist and a little silly. Maybe a lot silly, with deep-thought philosophical overtones if you want ’em, but it’s cool if you don’t. Nothing too grim or dense or prestige. Also, whatever you choose, you may need to stream this new show, lo this imminent Thanksgiving weekend, in the presence of various family members of various political persuasions and societal outlooks. Meaning: some love Family Guy and some despise it. Let’s agree to disagree. (Both of those linked Family Guy clips are delightful.)

The gold standard in super-weird TV remains Adult Swim, the Cartoon Network’s nocturnal home for deranged cartoons and live-action nightmares from Aqua Teen Hunger Force to Squidbillies to “Too Many Cooks” to Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell. But yo, Adult Swim is confounding, and deliberately nauseating, and more than a little bro-ish, and particularly forbidding for folks of a certain age (not collegiate) and level of stoned-ness (not stoned).

Thankfully, though, a little of that secondhand smoke has wafted upward, to bigger and generally less adventurous networks from Fox (with Son of Zorn) to TBS (People of Earth) to NBC (The Good Place). In terms of both tone and personnel, this trio of debut shows triangulates Saturday Night Live (wacky hit-or-miss anarchy) and the American version of The Office (barbed sitcom sweetness). Basically, they’re all outwardly conventional half-hour comedies injected with something outré and unsettlingly cheery and worth embracing in these dark times that call out for a bright, cleansing, disorienting light.

These shows will never win ratings wars (still dominated by classicist fare like The Big Bang Theory and NCIS) or dominate the cultural conversation like Atlanta or Stranger Things or Mr. Robot, which prize innovation and can even jump the rails entirely if need be, but in a controlled, often stuffy and highbrow way. Weird TV is for when you need to turn your brain off, but you wouldn’t mind shaking it vigorously for a few minutes first. In private. In uneasy times, stranger (and goofier, and uneasier) things have their place, too.

(Sorry, but just to clarify, that first Family Guy clip above is from the episode where Peter hires Michael McDonald to follow him around and sing everything Peter says, because he enjoys Michael McDonald’s voice so much, and so at one point Peter farts, and MM sings, “FAARRRT.” Hilarious. It’s important that you have all the facts, here.)

The Good Place, the pastel-colored “Kristen Bell goes to heaven by mistake” fairy tale and Ringer favorite, naturally has the highest profile given its Big Three network pedigree, but it ain’t high enough. Watch this show: It’s profoundly strange and enormously winsome, a combination worth exploring here in more detail. Created by Michael Schur — he of NBC’s The Office and Parks and Recreation, Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Fire Joe Morgan — it would get by on star power alone, with Bell as the lovable a-hole and Ted Danson as the befuddled architect god-person. Danson in particular, shell-shocked and Zen as ever, is the GOAT at making the mundane spectacular and the absurd relatable, skills that have historically served both him and us excellently whether the vehicle was Bored to Death or CSI. There is no one you’d rather watch wondrously eat a saltine cracker. And so you do, and it is wonderful.

The show just wrapped up the first half of its first season, a nine-episode bouquet ideal for light bingeing, full of goofy one-liners (“Hello everyone, and welcome to Day 3 of our brunch siege”) and bizarre Black Mirror–in-reverse imagery (what with the giant ladybugs terrorizing the populace to Ariana Grande songs) and philosophical lectures (you gotta learn about contractualism somehow). Danson, on frozen yogurt: “There’s something so human about taking something so great and then ruining it a little so you can have more of it.” The cast is colorful in the childlike sense and also the adult sense; the whole thing, especially now, feels like a utopia worth embracing even as it recedes.

This is all lovely as a fount of total randomness (and a cheering sign for comedy-starved NBC), but the plot, too, buzzes along, weighty and unpredictable, debating the value of Bell’s soul and raising Big Questions and answering them at a steadier, more assuring clip than another new high-concept TV program we could mention. This is maybe the ultimate Thanksgiving-night family uniter, airy and buoyant if you’d prefer but deep and contemplative if you can handle it. By the time you get to the last few episodes, demons from hell are snorting the concept of time off the coffee table and doing Nixon-tapes karaoke whilst Adam Scott leers and fires off mid-dinner bon mots like, “Oh man, this is gonna make a primo dump later.” Even the lowest humor has a celestial bent.

(It’s fine if you keep stopping to go back and watch the Family Guy Michael McDonald thing again. It’s a life-changer.)

Speaking of Family Guy, here’s its new Sunday-night lead-in. Son of Zorn is the most Adult Swim offering here, mixing live-action and animation, the dumb merrily mingling with the dumber. Jason Sudeikis voices Zorn, a suspiciously He-Man-like cartoon warrior who moves from his fictional but earthbound homeland of Zephyria back to real-life Orange County to reconnect with his half-human teenage son. It’s Curb Your Enthusiasm crossed with Who Framed Roger Rabbit; Cheryl Hines plays Sudeikis’s ex-wife. Dollars to donuts she’ll have onscreen basic-cable sex with a cartoon action hero before the end of this season, if that’s the sort of thing that interests you, or your grandmother. We make no judgments.

Produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — overlords of the 21 Jump Street franchise, The Lego Movie, and the imminent Han Solo jam — Zorn isn’t great enough to be good, but it’s odd enough to be worth tolerating anyway. The awkward humans-interact-with-cartoon aspect grows on you. This is not high-quality sausage, but there’s a singular allure to trying to figure out how, exactly, it’s made.

(Fox)
(Fox)

So you roll with it. You get a bunch of disaffected adolescents firing a cartoon lava gun to the strains of “Panda”; you get Sudeikis doing the boorish, entitled man-child thing, which he’s perfect for, just as H. Jon Benjamin is perfect for Archer. Nick Offerman and Serial’s Sarah Koenig both make peculiar and excellent cameos; your MVP is Tim Meadows, as Cheryl Hines’s emasculated dorkus of a fiancé. He’s perfect, too, for the last-10-minutes-of-SNL sort of high-minded, low-execution desperation that pervades here. “I’ve been pantsed,” he announces, gravely. “I’ve been pantsed many times. And it is not hilarious.” Then he goes back to slurping his soup. Give it a shot. Your least-well-adjusted cousin will love it.

Somewhere between those two poles, aesthetically and intellectually, is People of Earth, starring embattled Daily Show vet Wyatt Cenac as a big-shot journalist who, after a series of unsettling conversations with a talking deer, joins an alien-abduction support group in upstate New York. It’s a goofball-ensemble deal, mysterious and eccentric; my favorite bit player is the farmer, who stress-eats large pretzels and describes his vocation as “pretty run-of-the-mill, I guess. Grow some stuff. Kill some stuff.” (H. Jon Benjamin shows up, actually, as an intergalactically dirty small-town cop.) There are, indeed, three types of onscreen aliens: suave reptilian infiltrators, a classic-sci-fi big-headed misanthrope with weird lips, and a Lord of the Rings–style elfin albino sex god. When the aliens get to bickering, you sense that the show’s executive producers, including Conan O’Brien and Office alum Greg Daniels, are aiming for Woody Allen sophistication and will settle for Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker farce. And so will you.

(TBS)
(TBS)

We’re only five episodes in, the early returns low stakes but with high upside. Cenac does a lot of bug-eyed gasping, but he’s not trying to win any acting awards; Ana Gasteyer, who likewise has highly developed last-10-minutes-of-SNL chops, has a bracing gravitas as the support-group leader. The platonic ideal here, actually, is that recurring SNL skit with basically the same alien-abduction premises where Kate McKinnon makes everyone laugh so hard they break character. We’re not onto anything that daffy and transcendent yet, but the raw materials are there.

The appeal, like The Good Place for the most part and Son of Zorn for definitely the whole part, is that you can invest in this show with the assurance that it’ll never let you down by thinking too highly of itself. Such is the benefit of not taking yourself too seriously: Your soothed and grateful viewers might come to take it seriously for you. These shows will never inspire dozens of podcasts or monopolize the conversation at parties, but there’s a joy in that, a warming sense of intimacy and anarchy and slight embarrassment. As adults, we’re taught to put away childish things, but the only truly adult reaction to these fraught times might be to pull them back out again.

(“FAARRRT.”)