TV

The Rundown: ‘Ultra City Smiths’ Was One Of The Weirdest (And Best) Shows Of The Year

The Rundown is a weekly column that highlights some of the biggest, weirdest, and most notable events of the week in entertainment. The number of items could vary, as could the subject matter. It will not always make a ton of sense. Some items might not even be about entertainment, to be honest, or from this week. The important thing is that it’s Friday, and we are here to have some fun.

ITEM NUMBER ONE — You know, just your classic detective noir parody musical starring puppets voiced by celebrities

Follow me here: Ultra City Smiths is a gritty crime noir about a missing wealthy businessman and the citywide manhunt that develops as they try to find him. But it’s also a parody of that. And it stars puppets. The puppets sing songs at least once each episode. They’re voiced by, like, famous people you know from other shows. John C. Reilly shows up as a character known as “The King of the Night” who refuses to be questioned by the lead detective — who has a crippling addiction to, I swear this is true, limes — unless he can defeat him in a dance battle on a disco floor. At one point, one character has to sell his pants and starts walking around with newspaper wrapped around his legs. He calls them newspaper pants.

I feel like I’m losing you. Okay. Okay. Let me try again. Ultra City Smiths is the latest project from Patriot creator Steven Conrad. Did you watch Patriot? Man, I hope you did. That show balanced the serious and the silly and the outright absurd as well as any show I’ve ever seen. There are only two seasons of it and it’s on Amazon Prime. Go watch it sometime if you haven’t. Or watch it again if you have. It’s good.

Ultra City Smiths is like that, but more. There are serious and sad parts, there are unabashedly goofy parts, all of it. It is legitimately unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television, which I say as a compliment, if only because it’s cool to see people finding new ways to tweak and play with a form that has been stretched tissue-thin over the years. It’s one of the nice things about having 3000 channels and 400 streaming services. There’s room for everything.

Let’s talk songs, though. I feel like that didn’t really sink in earlier. Remember the thing I said about John C. Reilly playing a character who goes by “The King of the Night”? Well, I was not kidding. Look at him go.

So there’s that. There’s also this: Kristen Bell, playing a mayoral candidate whose husband is a sleaze and who was just embarrassed publicly by a sex tape video with him in which she dresses and acts like a cat, doing a full-on musical number with crowd participation while riding on what appears to be the back of a flatbed truck that is driving through town.

It’s honestly incredible. The season debuted on AMC’s premium streaming service a few weeks ago and just got done airing its season on AMC proper this week. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about it earlier. (I’m sorry!) You can still binge it on AMC Plus, or on AMC’s website if you have a cable subscription. I really recommend you do. It’s so delightfully weird. Bebe Neuwirth from Frasier voices a professional wrestler named Lady Andrea the Giant. Tom Waits is the narrator. Jimmi Simpson and Da’Vine Joy Randolph voice the main detectives. It rules.

I imagine this is coming off as a bit of a hard sell. It might feel like I’m pushing too hard. If you’re getting that vibe from me here, please know that it’s happening for two equally important reasons: One, because I think it’s important for you to broaden your viewing experiences and try new and potentially strange things once in a while; two, because I really want a second season of this show and if I type all these words and convince enough people to watch, I might get one.

This is, maybe, a little bit self-serving. I can admit that. But I did also give you that video of a puppet voiced by John C. Reilly singing a song about being the king of the night. I’m doing this for both of us. Mostly for me. But also for us.

ITEM NUMBER TWO — Space things are happening

NBC

A few things are true here:

  • William Shatner went to space this week
  • It would make sense to use a picture of him as Captain Kirk from Star Trek here, considering the outer space of it all
  • I chose, instead, to use a picture of him from his guest spot as the murderer on an episode of Columbo, in part because I love it and in part because this is my little sandbox to do things I love

Anyway, I think this is kind of cool. I don’t know. It’s just… it’s kind of cool that we launched a 90-year-old famous fictional spaceman into space for real. I have mixed-to-bad feelings about the billionaire space, in general. I think it’s either a silly way to waste money when it could be put to better use helping people on Earth or a terrifying thing because the richest and most successful people on the planet appear hellbent on getting off it. Like, do they know something or are they just frivolous bozos? Or is it both? I suppose we’ll find out at some point.

But look how excited Shatner was about it all. From CBS:

“I’m looking out the window, and it turns out that nobody told me about it. I mean, the limitations, there’s about a 50-mile skin that the Earth has of air. The air reflects the light and turns blue. So we see a blue sky. We grow up and live in a blue sky, right? The spaceship — and I like to call it that — punched through that at 2,500 miles per hour, 50 miles, 2,500 miles an hour so within the count of two or three it goes from blue, bang, and suddenly it’s black,” Shatner said. “And you see this black, and that’s space and eternity and the mystery of the cosmos. But it’s black, and it’s death and just down there is the blue — you’re on top of the blue looking down on Earth.”

And look at this. Look at him continuing to gush about space.

“You’re floating. Your gut is floating, your head is floating. The outside is, you’re immersed in things that are indescribable,” Shatner said. “I was so moved. And what I wanted when I said I want to hold on to it, it’s like a truth that suddenly comes to you. And you don’t want to dissipate it. You don’t want to lose it. You want to hold it for the rest of your life.”

That’s cool to me. Maybe I’ll feel differently if I sit around and think about it some more, but why would I do that when I could also… not do that? Let’s not do that. In fact, let’s move on to something else entirely. Let’s list some other cool space stuff, also in bullet points:

  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe is a cool book about the early days of the space program that I finding myself re-reading every couple of years because it rules
  • For All Mankind is a cool show on Apple TV about space that starts from the alternate history premise that Russia beat us to the moon and it all builds out from there
  • One time on Review, Andy Daly’s character took his father-in-law, played by the great Fred Willard, to space and things went terribly wrong

How wrong? This wrong.

I guess the point I’m getting at here is that Review was a good show and I miss it a lot. I’m glad we had this chat.

ITEM NUMBER THREE — Only Murders in the Building is so much fun

HULU

Only Murders in the Buildings is a blast. We discussed this weeks ago before the first episode dropped on Hulu, but it remains true today, almost a full season of television later, with the finale dropping next Tuesday. It’s got so much going for it: Steve Martin giving you the full Steve Martin, Martin Short giving you the FULL Martin Short, Selena Gomez grounding the whole thing, Nathan Lane being devious, a sprawling whodunnit, Tina Fey sometimes, etc. In this week’s episode, Jane Lynch showed up as Steve Martin’s character’s former stunt double. Her character’s name is Sazz Pataki. This is good business.

I don’t have too much else to add here. Most of my feelings about all this are in the review I linked to up there. I imagine I’ll have more to say after the finale next week when — hopefully — they drop the reveal of who did the murdering and why. For now, I just wanted to reiterate that the show is a lot of fun and only 30 minutes a pop and would be a solid way to burn up three or four hours this weekend if you’re sitting around twiddling your thumbs or playing on your phone or twiddling your thumbs on your phone.

Sazz Pataki. Still not over that one.

ITEM NUMBER FOUR — My dads will not stop fighting and, quite frankly, I love it

Universal

I don’t know if the long-simmering feud between The Rock and Vin Diesel is my favorite thing in the world, but I am pretty sure it’s in the top five, at least. It just brings me joy in so many ways, these two massive box office dynamos just trashing each other in the press for something close to half a decade now, splitting up a successful movie franchise because they can’t be in a room together. I’m smiling right now as I’m typing this. I hope they never make up.

I bring this up now because The Rock poured himself some tequila and sat down with Vanity Fair for a lengthy profile that touched on his youth and his rise to fame and, yup, Vin Diesel. Go read it all. It’s great. But especially read this paragraph. It is a really good paragraph.

Over time, Diesel has voiced his own oblique observations about this situation. He has put down their differences to them being two alpha males (Johnson: “Sounds like him to say that, sure”); characterized Johnson, perhaps slightly patronizingly, as Hollywood’s second “multicultural megastar” whom he’s proud to see following in his footsteps (Johnson: “He talks like that”); and said that “I protected Dwayne more than he’ll ever know…but he appreciates it. He knows he only has one big brother in the film world, and that’s me.” (Johnson: “I have one big brother and it’s my half brother. And that’s it.”)

Everything here is great, starting with the words The Rock said and moving to the way it’s structured with The Rock saying those things in parentheticals so it reads like he’s responding in real-time. I’ve read it something like a dozen times and I’ve started giggling at “Sounds like him to say that, sure” each time. It’s all so petty and childish and being carried out by two musclebound multimillionaires who are professionally known as “The Rock” and “Vin Diesel.” If you can’t see the fun in this one, buddy, I do not know what else I can do for you. Maybe go get a dog. Might help.

ITEM NUMBER FIVE — An important note about Sexy Wonka

We can blast through this one pretty quick. Timothee Chalamet, bless his porcelain soul, blasted out this image on Instagram this week. It’s the first look at him as a young Willy Wonka in Wonka, because, I don’t know, why wouldn’t Willy Wonka get an origin story? Who among us hasn’t wondered, for decades now, how Willy Wonka became a nutso candyman who employs a squadron of little people who may or may not be enslaved? I mean, besides me. Because I have not thought about that even a little. And I suspect I won’t think about it again for a long time after this is published.

But let’s be professional about this and provide context. From CNN:

“The suspense is terrible, I hope it will last… WONKA,” Chalamet captioned the image, quoting Gene Wilder’s famous line from his portrayal of Willy Wonka in the 1971 movie musical “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

Although the plot of “Wonka” is being kept under wraps, the IMDB website says the Warner Bros. prequel will be set years before the events of Dahl’s 1964 novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and will focus on Willy Wonka’s early life.

Good. Fine. Wonderful. But none of that is why we’re talking about this. We’re talking about this because I saw the image and was driving myself insane over why it looked so familiar and then my colleague Josh Kurp sent me this tweet in our work Slack.

Timothee Chalamet’s sexy young Wonka is dressed almost exactly like Gonzo’s version of Charles Dickens in The Muppet Christmas Carol. This is incredible to me. I will never not unsee this now. So… maybe I will be thinking about young Wonka now after all.

Maybe this was their plan all along.

Maybe they did it just to target me and get me to mention it 2000 words into this column.

It was almost too easy.

ITEM NUMBER SIX — Are you guys excited to get super friggin’ calm?

It brings me great pleasure to report that Joe Pera Talks With You is coming back for a third season in a few weeks. That show is cool and weird and funny and unlike anything else on television right now, which I know I just said about Ultra City Smiths, but still. It’s true. It has its own pace and style, the purposely slow rollout of information punctuated but action and deep feeling that catches you off guard. He did a whole episode about going to a grocery store. The entire second season was built around an arc about him growing a bean arch in his yard. Most of the episodes are like 11 minutes long and as calm and peaceful as a lake at sunrise.

Pera attached an announcement to the video, which I will paste here.

Hello,

My name is Joe Pera and I’m writing to let you know that my old basset hound, Gus, and I will be returning for the third season of our relaxing comedy show, Joe Pera Talks With You on Sunday, November 7 at 12:30 a.m. ET/PT on Adult Swim.

The first episode follows me as I help my friend Gene pick out his retirement chair at the furniture store and the season-long search for the perfect place to sit goes from there. Aside from figuring out where to sit, episodes this season cover a lot of other stuff too, such as Great Lakes Ice Breakers, second fridges, cooking fish in the woods, classroom-appropriate movies, and drone warfare.

We put together the video above if you’d like a preview but I hope you’ll consider checking out my slow-paced show.

– Joe Pera

This really sums things up better than I did. It all reads nice and sweet and then suddenly, blammo, “drone warfare.” I am happy Succession is back this week because I missed watching those cretins rip each other limb from limb, but I’m also glad this show is coming back, too. Life is about balance, I guess.

READER MAIL

If you have questions about television, movies, food, local news, weather, or whatever you want, shoot them to me on Twitter or at brian.grubb@uproxx.com (put “RUNDOWN” in the subject line). I am the first writer to ever answer reader mail in a column. Do not look up this last part.

From Ash:

Important question regarding Matthew McConaughey’s possible political aspirations:

Which would you rather see, a tv show, or real life episode where Matthew McConaughey becomes President of the United States and makes a speech with the two dogs he was having a conversation with about what to have for dinner in that Lincoln commercial sitting in the seats usually occupied by the Vice President and Speaker of the House?

Follow up: what Cabinet positions do you think Matthew McConaughey would try to create for the aforementioned dogs? This can apply to real or fictional Matthew McConaughey or both.

I don’t really have an answer to this question. I’m sure I could figure one out if I sat here and thought about it a lot. Mostly, though, I’m just really happy that Ash sent this to me. I feel like I’m doing something right, like people are really getting what I’m about on a personal level, when someone somewhere is clicking “Compose Email” and typing out a whole thing about Matthew McConaughey becoming the President and appointing dogs he starred in commercials with to high-ranking government positions.

I like that this is something that happened. Makes it all worth it, more than the paycheck. Maybe not more than the paycheck. I do like money. Feel free to send some of that instead of an email if you want. But if you’re dead-set on the email, I mean, this is a pretty solid way to go. Thank you, Ash.

AND NOW, THE NEWS

To Nashville!

Nashville’s Metro government asked a judge to temporarily shut down Music City Party Tub — a mobile hot tub business that debuted in the Lower Broadway entertainment district in 2019 — in a lawsuit filed in Davidson County Chancery Court last week.

I do not know the hows or whys yet, although I imagine I’ll learn them shortly as I read on, but I don’t think I’m out of line when I say that this is the greatest injustice happening in America right now. We must free the Party Tub.

For the people.

The entertainment vehicle composed of a trailer fitted with a hot tub is operating illegally without a public swimming pool permit from Metro’s health department, according to the lawsuit. The health department issued a letter informing Music City Party Tub of its alleged health code violation on Aug. 11.

FREE

THE

PARTY

TUB

Health department field workers spotted Williams operating the mobile hot tub in Sept. 2020 while enforcing COVID-19 emergency health orders and told him he was operating without a permit, the lawsuit states. Williams replied that he is exempt from the permit requirement because his hot tub falls 50 gallons short of the “minimum capacity” for a public pool.

See, this is the problem with government bureaucrats, always squashing the dreams of the little man for unjust reasons, which is an opinion I’m sure I’ll continue to hold after I read the next sentence.

No such exemption exists, according to the lawsuit, which was first reported by Nashville Scene.

Ah.

Hmm.

But, like, still…

The hot-tub adorned trailer meets Tennessee code’s definition of a public swimming pool, and violating the permit requirement can result in civil penalties and a Class C misdemeanor, the letter states. Each day the mobile party tub continues to operate after receiving the letter without correcting the compliance issue counts as a separate offense.

Williams refused to sign the letter, documents show.

FREE

THE

PARTY

TUB

But also abide by your local laws and ordinances so we can continue to have a working society.

But then free the party tub. For the people.

×