TV Reviews: HBO’s ‘The Ricky Gervais Show’ and ‘The Life and Times of Tim’

02.19.10 8 years ago


We’re still six weeks away from the beginning of Passover, but that’s where my mind is this morning.

During the Seder, we speak of the Four Sons — one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know to ask — as a lens through which to view the possible meanings and interpretations of the observance. The Seder is full of remarkable recountings, but each of the four archetypal sons responds to the remarkable in a different way.

For reasons that probably say strange things about me, I look at HBO’s new Friday lineup — “The Ricky Gervais Show,” “The Life and Times of Tim” and “Real Time with Bill Maher” — and I see HBO attempting to reboot the essence of the Four Sons through Tim, Karl Pilkington and Bill Maher. All three are essentially reactive figures, men to whom things happen, but they respond to the encroachment of the world in very different ways.

Tim of “The Life and Times of Tim,” is probably the the simple son. He’s not stupid or unengaged with the world, but when crazy things happen to him, his reaction is something along the lines of “Let’s wait and see how this play out.” He’s not a complete observer, because his life seems to attract the bizarre, but he’s very much along for the right.
Karl, of “The Ricky Gervais Show,” knows to ask questions, he just asks stupid questions. And yes, school children, no matter what your teachers try to tell you, there actually *is* such a thing as a stupid question. He sees the wonders of the world and invariably misinterprets them or learns the wrong lessons from them. But he’s not evil, just dumb.
That leaves Maher. Some people call him the wise son, some the wicked, so I guess he’s filling two roles at the HBO Friday Night Seder. The people calling him the wicked son don’t understand the role the wicked son performs in the Seder. His purpose is to distance himself from the communal, first-person connection with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. But Maher never approaches the world’s political and social problems from the outside. Quite the opposite. He takes everything personally and makes every outside narrative his own, however loosely connected he is to it. So you could view him as the Wise Son and also as the Strident and Grating Son, one who rarely gets invited to the Passover dinner.
That was a stretch, right?
Well, it makes sense to me.
Anyway, brief reviews of “The Ricky Gervais Show” and “The Life and Times of Tim” after the break…
“The Ricky Gervais Show” (airing 9 p.m. on HBO) — The “Extras” and “The Office” star (and creative partner Stephen Merchant) return to the small screen with an animated version of the regular podcasts they did with radio producer Karl Pilkington. That’s all it is, so if you know the wildly popular podcasts, you know all of the “stories,” so to speak. They’ve just been animated and visualized in a rudimentary, but not unappealing fashion.
If you’ve listened to the podcasts, you know the basic gimmick: Pilkington is “a little round-headed buffoon” and for Gervais and Merchant, he becomes what they describe as “an ongoing experiment.” Rather than attempting to educate Pilkington, which would be foolish, they just goad him to test the extreme of his ignorance. So they poke and prod Pilkington to get him to express confusion about issues like technology, overpopulation, travel, charity and why it is that you never see homeless Asians. Having achieved their desired goals of exposing Pilkington’s stupidity to the world, Gervais and Merchant cackle and, to his credit, Pilkington invariably digs himself deeper, with disarming calmness. 
The material in the podcast, at least the stuff I’ve heard, is often hilarious. Pilkington is oblivious, but Merchant and Gervais are sharp and cruel and regular segments like Monkey News are reliable laugh-getters.
An odd thing happens in the animation process: The round-headed Pilkington, with his thin lips and one-dot eyes becomes a newly sympathetic figure. You don’t root for him to get the best of his oppressors, but he suddenly comes across as earnest and a little victimized, with Gervais and Merchant drawn as much livelier and more expressive jackanapes mocking him. The show asks that you laugh *with* Gervais and Merchant, rather than *at* Pilkington and, in the process, you become another conspirator in his torture.
The animation also, however, erases the sensation that Pilkington is playing this anything other than straight. If you only listen, you could come to believe that he’s performing a role in a little radio play, but his animated avatar is only sincere.
So “The Ricky Gervais Show,” in this incarnation, simply delivers fewer laughs, because it makes you stare into the squinty eyes of an imbecile. Me, I prefer to laugh at imbeciles behind their backs, apparently. 
That being said, I’m also on the record as being a strong advocate of monkey-driven entertainment, be it animated or live action. It would therefore be hypocritical of me to discount the amusement and sheer number of simian character popping up on “The Ricky Gervais Show.” 
Really, the depreciation of laughs on “The Ricky Gervais Show” doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and clever, but it may just end up being a vehicle to drive up podcast sales. It’s still available for purchase, right?
“The Life and Times of Tim” (airing 9:30 p.m. on HBO) — In addition to my monkey advocacy, I’m also on the record as a vocal supporter of Steve Dildarian’s “The Life and Times of Tim.” The animated comedy’s first season made my Top 10 list for 2008, in fact.
All I feel like I need to say is that the show I loved two years ago is back and its low-fi charms remain intact, despite a minor artistic polish. 
HBO sent out an out-of-sequence trio of episodes, so it’s hard to know if this is a representative sample of the season, or just six funny incidents.  If they’re representative, it’s possible that “The Life and Times of Tim” is a tiny bit less raw and absurd this season and maybe, in that respect, a little more grounded in reality. Tim still has an unfortunate professional run-in with a homeless man, runs afoul of a low-leve drug dealer/thespian and encounters a boozy and legendary author voiced by the incomparable Philip Baker Hall.
In the latter incident, Tim describes his brief aspirations to be a writer, observing, “That’s what I always wanted to do. I was going to do that and then I didn’t.”
That sums up Tim’s world view. Life is made up of the things that happen instead of the other things that don’t happen. It’s partially Zen, partially resignation, and partially go-with-the-flow business-casual. And with Dildarian’s low-affect vocal shadings, the results are often hilarious and never less than carefully constructed absurdist punchlines.
“The Life and Times of Tim” also continues to often slip in gentle, but pointed commentary, be it the health care lament of “Pharmaceutical Sales Rep Gone Wild,” a gun control story in “Amy’s Got a Gun” or the vehemently anti-beard position of the season-opening “Tim’s Beard.” Dildarian and the “Tim” writing staff have a political viewpoint, even if they’re not going to push it Bill Maher style.
Because of its particular sensibility, “The Life and Times of Tim” will always be a little niche-y, but I think audiences might want to look past its animated trappings and instead group it in with other similarly loose TV comedies on the live-action side. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Bored to Death” are two clear comparisons due to the HBO ties, but I’d also say that if you enjoy “Party Down” and “Parks and Recreation,” you should give “Tim” a try.
“The Ricky Gervais Show” and “The Life and Times of Tim” occupy HBO’s 9 p.m. hour starting on Friday, Feb. 19.

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