FX’s “The Comedians,” a sadly ill-conceived half-hour series premiering Thursday, tries to head critics off at the pass, framing itself as a bad TV show about the making of a bad TV show that stars two celebrities who are playing fictionalized versions of themselves at a professionally desperate junction. (Like that’s never been done?) Deliberately belching smoke is one way to disorient the drivers behind you, but eventually we will catch up to the truth: Whatever was supposed to be funny here very plainly isn’t.
Billy Crystal and Josh Gad star as “Billy Crystal” and “Josh Gad”: One is a famous and beloved 67-year-old star of television, film and several Oscar nights, who has pitched a sketch comedy series to “FX” (played by FX) in which he will portray every single character. Network executives aren’t thrilled with the idea and instead suggest to Crystal’s agent that he should be paired with Gad, a 34-year-old actor known mainly for his Broadway success in “The Book of Mormon” and for supplying the voice of Olaf the snowman in Disney’s wildly popular animated film “Frozen.”
In its first four episodes, “The Comedians” feels around, sometimes successfully, for the ouchiest and most revealing bruises on both of these inflated egos: Crystal is threatened by Gad’s youth and reductive comic sensibility; Gad is a wildly insecure, deeply untrustworthy colleague, at once disrespectful and obsequious. “It’s a dance when you first meet with someone,” Gad tells the mockumentary film crew following him to a dinner meeting with his potential co-star. “And like dancing, people over 60 aren’t very good at it.”
Reluctantly, the two agree to work together on “The Billy and Josh Show.” In portraying the terribly unfunny content of the fictional show, “The Comedians” tries to have it both (or more) ways, blurring the lines between what’s a joke and what’s real, as if any of it was leading to something that’s worth watching. Several times in the mockumentary segments, Gad frets about his salability in Hollywood and how much he needs the work, confessing that he blew all his “Season 2 money” from “1600 Penn,” a 2013 NBC sitcom that never had a prayer of getting a second season. The joke here, I guess, is that Gad knows precisely how irritating it is to keep seeing new TV shows with “Josh Gad” (or worse, the actual Josh Gad) as the star. That’s a long way to go — and a lot of star cred to burn — to earn a mere satirical smirk rather than a laugh.
There are fleeting moments of giddy pleasure, such as when Crystal and Gad get stoned and run amok in a supermarket while they’re supposed to be at a kids’ choice awards show, but there aren’t enough scenes like these to sustain the concept. As with other shows about the supposed tortures of working in the Industry, “The Comedians” is yet one more entry in a genre no one truly clamors for, except within the very narrow confines of Hollywood. When it works, as with Showtime’s “Episodes,” HBO’s “The Comeback” and others (“Entourage,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “30 Rock” — the list could go on) we happily forgive the self-absorption. When it fails, it seems egregiously unimaginative.
“The Comedians” has all the usual tropes and stereotypes of behind-the-scenes showbiz humor, including the inattentive, unmotivated production assistant (Megan Ferguson), the neurotic head writer (Matt Oberg) and an incompetent executive producer (Stephnie Weir), as well as cameo appearances galore, some of which feature actors playing themselves (Mel Brooks, too briefly) and some of which feature actors playing fictional characters (Dana Delany as Crystal’s wife; Steven Weber as a transgender director).
But the real work isn’t finished until the show predictably slathers on some Jewish-style self-deprecation — a shtick Crystal exhausted years ago. For some myopic reason, network executives (real or imagined) keep greenlighting shows like “The Comedians” for wider audiences, when the only guaranteed audience is looking back at them in the mirror. Sometimes inside jokes are meant to be just that.
In far better news, Louis CK’s deservedly praised “Louie” returns for a fifth season Thursday (also on FX), although there are signs in the first four of these new episodes that Louie is beginning to meet himself coming around the corner. Deliberately or not, the show throttles back on the experimental narrative arcs; fans of the early seasons might be relieved to see “Louie” is once again mostly about a single father and stand-up comedian and some of the people he knows.
“This one time, I was in the third grade . . ., ” Louie tells his on-again/off-again lover, Pamela (Pamela Adlon), and with these words, a viewer mentally prepares for one of the show’s tangential flashback stories. The scene even shifts to a nervous-looking redheaded kid sitting a school desk in the 1970s.
“I don’t want to hear this,” Pamela immediately interrupts. “It sounds long.”
She’s right; it does. Just like that, the kid disappears and we don’t hear another word of it.
After last year’s memorable episode in which Louie had a heartfelt (if painful) debate over how he regards overweight women as potential lovers, it’s tempting to greet each new situation in “Louie” as another veiled piece of topical commentary: Is Louie’s aggravating yet ultimately emotional encounter with a pushy New York police officer (Michael Rapaport) some larger statement about recent police brutality cases? When Louie experiences a violent assault from a woman, and, later, when he and Pamela engage in an unexpected act of gender reversal, should we brace ourselves for the multitude of online analyses that will follow?
The show has had moments of brilliance in depicting Louie’s relationship to younger millennials who surround him; a couple of scenes this season would seem to indicate that, at 47, he surrenders. A 24-year-old owner of an expensive cookware boutique expresses her deep antipathy for Louie and his entire generation, but the scene feels forced. It’s a rare moment when a viewer catches “Louie” trying too hard to one-up itself.
The recent ad campaign for the series upsells “Louie’s” essential “only in New York”-ness, rather than the show’s more meaningful universality. Even out in Hollywood, it’s as if executives at FX (the real ones) haven’t noticed how many bites of the Big Apple we’re asked to choke down each day, across every media platform. I can’t speak for all, but I certainly don’t watch “Louie” because I think it nails New York; I watch it because I think it nails the human condition.
(30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX.
(30 minutes) returns Thursday at 10:30 on FX.