In my early days on the beat, NBC had an ad campaign encouraging people to watch summer reruns, promising, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” In the age of Peak TV, that slogan seems less cynical than accurate. The rise of streaming services has put the bulk of TV history only a click or two away, which means that people are constantly discovering The Wire, or Arrested Development, or Terriers (sigh) for the very first time.
In lieu of a summer rewind this year, I wanted to offer up primers of shows you can stream, whether an older series available in full(*) or something current you can catch up on before its next season begins. So far, I’ve done a pair of current shows in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Halt and Catch Fire, plus a completed show in United States of Tara.
(*) Note: with these picks, I’m trying to skip the obvious stuff (Breaking Bad, The Wire, or even a lower-rated show I’ve written a ton about like Freaks and Geeks or Terriers) in favor of things I maybe haven’t been beating you over the head with for years, and/or that might not be in the top 100 from TV (THE BOOK), which I hear is available for pre-order now.
My latest pick is one I thought of doing immediately after Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, for reasons which will quickly become apparent, and thus I decided to space them out for variety’s sake. But for anyone who has already seen all of Crazy Ex and wants something even vaguely like it, I give you… Flight of the Conchords.
What is it? A comedy, created by James Bobin and comedy-musicians Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, who in real life had formed an act they referred to as “the fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand,” and here played dumber, much less successful versions of themselves, trying to make it big in America with the help of their oblivious agent, New Zealand consulate worker Murray Hewitt (Rhys Darby), while avoiding the creepy attentions of their lone fan, Mel (Kristen Schaal, in her first notable TV role).
Where can I find it? All 22 episodes are available to stream on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and Amazon Prime, and On Demand on many cable systems if you’re an HBO subscriber.
Where should I start? Begin at the beginning. Conchords wasn’t heavily serialized, though occasionally one of the guys would date a woman who hung around for multiple episodes (notably a young Sutton Foster as Bret’s girlfriend Coco), but it’s funny from the beginning, and the humor over time builds on our understanding of the two guys, Murray’s obsession with taking attendance at band meetings, Mel’s unusual relationship with husband Doug (all-star cable utility man David Costabile), etc.
What are its strengths? Start with the songs, as each episode featured at least two music videos, covering a wide range of styles, most of them as accurate to the genre as they are funny. This is where Bret and Jemaine had a distinct advantage over the Crazy Ex team, in that they already had a back catalog of songs they could lean on at first, while mixing in the occasional one written for the show.
To show you the wide range the show covered, here’s a pair of videos from the same episode, season 2’s “Unnatural Love” (where Jemaine dates an Australian woman, to the horror of Bret and Murray). First up, Bret and Jemaine’s buddy Dave (Arj Barker) warns them of the dangers of gender imbalance at the club (randomly, the tall older guy in the sunglasses was the cop from the Village People):
And later in the episode, Jemaine sings a more wistful song about the many ways his romantic life has turned sour:
I could just fill this post with YouTube embeds of all the songs and call it a day, but when Conchords was on its game, it was a deadpan delight even when the guys weren’t singing and dancing. Here, for instance, is an emergency band meeting where Murray and Jemaine confront Bret about all the time he’s devoting to his new “career” as a sign-holder:
Jemaine does, in fact, play the next gig accompanied by a tape recording of Bret, which in turn leads to Jemaine and Murray figuring out the pros and cons of letting the tape replace Bret in the band:
McKenzie, Clement, and Darby bounce off each other in the oddest, most unexpected comic ways, and then other actors like Schaal or John Hodgman (who pops up in one episode as an eccentric greeting card company executive) or Brian Sergent (as the very laid-back New Zealand prime minister) bring different kinds of energies in to mix things up and keep it fun. The tone is always absurd, yet with a sense of its own weird internal logic – in one episode, Bret’s purchase of a second cup for the apartment results in Jemaine becoming a male prostitute, and it makes perfect sense how this happens – and it presents parts of New York (particularly its bandshells and rotundas) rarely glimpsed on the hundreds of other shows set or filmed there.
What are its weakenesses? The guys used up a lot of their pre-existing music in the first season, and the second season’s songs were a bit dodgier, even if the joke-writing had grown even sharper. But even there, I may have been harsher at the time than I would be now: to prep for this piece, I rewatched a couple of season 2 episodes that I didn’t remember well (“The Tough Brets,” for instance, where Bret forms his own gang for protection after he disses a bunch of famous rappers during a gig), and found myself wondering why I was so lukewarm on them back in the day.
I’m still not entirely sold. What else can you tell me? If the above doesn’t make Flight of the Conchords sound like a show for you, it probably isn’t. But just in case, here are two more of my favorite songs from the show, starting with the tough rap song “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros”:
And here’s Jemaine pondering a long and happy life of regularly-scheduled lovemaking with his girlfriend Sally in “Business Time”:
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org