After watching the first episode of Netflix‘s new half-hour sketch comedy series, The Characters, most viewers will likely have the same thought: “Something feels wrong.” A few more episodes in, this feeling will transform into a visceral reaction/realization: “It’s the title! It must be changed.” Why? Because the show will leave audiences thinking they just spent 30 minutes of their lives watching some characters try to make them laugh with a bizarre array of jokes. As for the characters — comic creations whose assured presence is unquestionable — little about this program stands out.
To its credit, The Characters works from one of the loosest interpretations of what constitutes a sketch since Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele. And considering the track record producers John Skidmore, Genevieve Aniello and Brittney Segal have bring with them, maybe this foray into extreme niche comedy will lead to greater things down the line. Skidmore — whose producing resumé includes many of Louis C.K.‘s stand-up specials, Louie, Difficult People and Broad City — developed an intriguing concept with Aniello (A Very Murray Christmas) and Segal (The Office, Parks and Recreation). They gave eight comedians from different backgrounds “the opportunity to create their own 30-minute episodes and do whatever they want.”
They also promised them that the results wouldn’t be skewered by any “rules” or “limits,” meaning that what each comic did with their half hour would be unique enough to differentiate one entry from the next. So if you end up preferring the episode filmed by Lauren Lapkus, Kate Berlant, Dr. Brown, Paul W. Downs, John Early, Tim Robinson, Natasha Rothwell or Henry Zebrowski, then your preference will have more to do with that particular comedian than with the show itself. In that way, The Characters acts as a vessel for each performer’s specific take on sketch comedy.
Because of this built-in variability, pinpointing the exact highs and lows is daunting. Trying to assess this show is like watching, re-watching and stressing over wildly different programs at the same time. Each episode highlights a disparate comedic personality. Yet after previewing each of the four screeners Netflix made available to journalists, a few talents stood out. This is especially the case for Lauren Lapkus, perhaps the most recognizable of the eight comedians included in The Characters‘ roster, and Natasha Rothwell, a writer for Saturday Night Live. Not only are theirs the best-written, produced and performed entries in the mix, but they also feature some of the series’ funniest gags.
Lapkus, who did time with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast, presents the most thoughtful episode, structured around a fake Bachelorette-esque reality television show called The Single Celeb, which features the down-on-her-luck pop star, Whitney Peeps. The contestants, all of whom are named Ben save one lone soul called Kendall, pine for Peeps’s affection (i.e. sex) throughout the episode. Meanwhile, a smorgasbord of other characters played by Lapkus (including a rebellious teenage boy, a crazy hobo lady and more) float in and out of the main narrative with ease. Throw in a few early SNL-like fake commercials and eureka! The 30-year-old comedian delivers one of the series’ more solid half hours.
And then there’s Natasha Rothwell, whose entry not only gives the show some of its best-written segments, but also delivers a dizzying array of biting humor that’s too good not to laugh at. Consider a doctor’s visit sketch in which Dr. Rothwell and her assistant, both of whom are African-American, tend to a white female patient plagued with chiggers. Chiggers, which are perhaps the best known of the Trombiculidae family of mites, are nasty little creatures that typically live in the greener, grassier regions of temperate climates. All they do is bite, which causes irritation and itching, which can lead to further biting. They’re unpleasant pests, and Rothwell beautifully weaves that unpleasantness into a hilariously uncomfortable skit about another word with a similar sound — albeit one that’s wildly offensive. Yet the sketch never mentions this word, or the larger topic of race relations its implications point to, which makes it all the more satirical.
Ultimately, The Characters is just plain weird and far from entirely successful. But it deserves a chance, especially since Skidmore, Aniello and Segal’s concept gives new voices a space to express themselves. So even if some of comedians aren’t to your liking this time around, maybe one of the characters featured will be.
The Characters premieres today, March 11 on Netflix. Here’s a preview.