There was a time, back around 15-20 years ago, when I was able to get genuinely enthused about “reunion projects”. They were much rarer back then–the archival nature of modern pop culture means that there’s always someone willing to throw a little money at any intellectual property to see whether or not their fans will bite, but back in 2000 or so, if something was coming back, it was usually something pretty amazing that got a second chance mainly due to the unstinting love its fans had for it.
I think that it was ‘Dark Knight Strikes Again’ that cured me of my unquestioning enthusiasm for revivals of long-abandoned properties…well, that or ‘Phantom Menace’. Kind of a one-two punch there. But Lucas was always someone whose reputation was more as an enabler of other people’s good work–seeing Frank Miller utterly shit the bed was far more of a shock. After that, while I could still get excited about the things I loved coming back (Doctor Who, Serenity, and did I mention I chipped in $100 to the MST3K Kickstarter?) my enthusiasm was always tempered with the awareness that sometimes our fannish refusal to let things end results in nothing more than an effort to cash in on that devotion with a lazy and slapdash followup. (Like ‘Before Watchmen’.)
So I was fully aware, walking in, that ‘W/Bob and David’ could wind up terrible. It could be nothing more than the dregs of rejected “Mr. Show’ sketches, cobbled together and performed unenthusiastically to get a paycheck by comedians who wanted to cash in on their status as underappreciated legends. I watched it, but I was emotionally prepared for another ‘Dark Knight Strikes Again’ experience.
It didn’t suck! Actually, it was really amazing. The sketches were pretty much all very strong, both conceptually and in execution, and the performances were extremely funny. Part of that is that they made the smart decision to only do four episodes (plus a making of special)–doing the series for Netflix, rather than having to fulfill a network’s full-season order, meant that they could focus on their strongest material. Bob Odenkirk once said that a big part of the reason their show is funnier than SNL is that SNL has so many handicaps; they have to include musical numbers, they have to write around guest hosts, they have arbitrary limits on sketch lengths due to commercials, they’re performing live and have to include time for costume changes and set swaps, and they can’t swear. Add to that now that they have to produce a lot of comedy in a very short time, and you’ll see why Bob and David have the edge.
More than just being good comedy, though, it feels very much like a continuation of the work they were doing with ‘Mr. Show’. Although they continue their decision to avoid “topical” humor, there are a lot of bits that feel incredibly relevant in today’s climate, like an interview with a documentary director whose vision of the antebellum South omits the word “slave” and has plantation owners who hand out coupons “good for one free hug”. (I’m not saying Ben Carson made this documentary, but he probably gave it thumbs up.) There’s also an excellent gag involving a boy who’s excoriated for returning from a near-death experience with a vision of a non-judgmental Heaven that lets in everybody, because as one woman puts it, “There has to be a Hell, otherwise Heaven wouldn’t be nearly as nice.” These bits don’t make reference to any particular controversy or scandal, but they understand the mindset that produces them.
Not every bit kills–there’s a couple of weak sketches in episode three (one about Muslim terrorists as Hollywood power players that feels a bit too much like punching down and another about people trying to write a shitty Broadway musical that feels a bit too much like the joke is watching untalented people brainstorm boring ideas) but there are tons of new classics, like a cooking competition show where everyone forgets about the cooking entirely to embroider their human interest bios and an interrogation sequence where the “bad cop” and the “good cop” need couples therapy. It’s definitely the kind of triumphant return that makes me hope that the new MST3K will (cross fingers) pick up right where the old one left off.