Review: Netflix's 'With Bob and David' revives 'Mr. Show' with mixed but satisfying results
When Mr. Show with Bob and David ended its original run in December 1998, HBO was two weeks from premiering The Sopranos, the show that ushered in television’s Golden Age.
Funny enough, that Golden Age also has David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s fingerprints all over it. For one thing, they played key roles on two of the greatest series in history, Arrested Development and Breaking Bad. For another, their satirical sketch show, which ran for a scant four seasons, influenced almost every interesting comedy that came afterward, including Inside Amy Schumer, Nathan For You and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. There is now, in fact, an Emmy category, Best Variety Sketch Series, that seems created specifically to honor Mr. Show’s many descendants.
Did a landscape this steeped in alternative comedy really need With Bob and David, a four-episode Mr. Show revival that premiered early Friday morning on Netflix? Absolutely not. But it’s also not unwelcome. With Bob and David is rarely as smart, funny and well-crafted as your average Mr. Show episode — but in 2015, with so much Golden Age competition out there, even that is kind of a minor miracle.
And fans shouldn't let comparisons to Mr. Show stop them from appreciating With Bob and David. As Odenkirk says in an accompanying, enlightening documentary: "Turn off your f---ing Mr. Show brain and watch what we're doing now."
Almost the whole gang is back, including some performers, Paul F. Tompkins and Scott Aukerman among them, who have grown into their own comedic personas; and others, like Jay Johnston and Tom Kenny, look and act as though they haven’t aged a day.
Structurally, WBAD ditches Mr. Show’s iconic theme and opening (replaced by a bit of Monty Python-esque digital animation), but retains its blend of taped sketches and live-before-an-audience bits (though I couldn’t shake the feeling that some of the live laughter felt canned).
Less attention is given to the sketch-to-sketch connective tissue that served as Mr. Show’s hallmark — most of these pieces do connect, just not as innovatively. That points to WBAD’s biggest problem: It lacks Mr. Show's insanely committed performance and meticulous attention to detail.
Some WBAD sketches are basically one-joke premises that fail to escalate and surprise. Replacing a no-nonsense TV judge with a some-nonsense TV judge is an interesting concept, but in practice, there’s really nowhere for it to go. The same is true for a sketch about a dry cleaner that shamelessly ruins clothes, which led to a tedious bit about stumped writers crafting a Broadway musical. One sketch, ostensibly a mock documentary about door-to-door salesmen, doesn’t fully commit to the format — a must for any good parody — and so it lacks the pitch-perfect punch of Mr. Show mock-docs like “Dream of a Lifetime” and “Prenatal Pageant.”
Some of this, you could chalk up to the passage of time, or to the fact that Cross, Odenkirk and the rest of the writers now have a great many comedy projects to keep them busy. (Odenkirk nods to this in the behind-the-scenes doc, saying they’re not about to spend a day obsessively fine-tuning a particular problem, like they did in the old days.) At least the creators kind of acknowledge the show’s half-baked attitude, even going as far as to name sketches “The Interrogation Sketch” and “The Dry Cleaning Sketch.”
Some sketches do cut a little deeper, especially when they take aim at America’s modern P.C. culture. There’s a sketch about a prestige, period, Oscar-bait film that blatantly whitewashes the experiences of American slaves (er, that is, “helpers”). A sketch about the C-word feels unnecessarily vulgar before an X-Files twist turns it into a piece about the potency of offensive language. A sketch that skewers TED Talks posits there’s little difference between a tech visionary and a babbling idiot (“As long as you say the word 'digital’ every couple of words, you’re golden”). And when Cross and Odenkirk joke about wanting to show a picture of the prophet Mohammed on the air, a censor tells them they can’t even say the phrase “picture of the prophet Mohammed.”
(Cross and Odenkirk even needle themselves, and their fans, with a later payoff to that Mohammed joke. When their promised 72 virgins finally arrive, they aren’t women, but rather a gaggle of beardy comedy nerds who pepper them with questions about Mr. Show, Breaking Bad, Chris Farley and the Chipmunks movies.)
As always, some of Odenkirk and Cross’ most memorable jokes exist as asides, character traits, turns of a phrase, unexpected deliveries — a four-wheeling casual Pope “who was beloved for doing most of his Poping at home”; a made-up health pill for middle-agers with the slogan “Prilo-Vac: F--- your body.”
My favorite new sketch, one that I think could exist proudly within the Mr. Show canon, is a silly take on TV cooking competitions called Shark Kitchen. It’s an obvious target, one that feels very SNL, and it runs a little long. But Odenkirk and Mary Lynn Rajskub are so completely committed in their performances that it really does feel like vintage Mr. Show.
One great sketch; a scattered array of good jokes, performances and ideas; and an engrossing hourlong documentary — is that enough to have warranted a Mr. Show revival? Well, look: It had to happen someday. It wouldn’t be TV’s Golden Age without Bob and David.
— Jay Cridlin