The characters of ‘The Characters’
Erin McAuliffe | Thursday, March 17, 2016
What do you get when you give eight comedians creative free reign and Netflix’s budget and platform? “The Characters,” an eight episode sketch-based comedy series (with set-ups much better than this one) was released March 11.
Netflix has sponsored stand-up specials before, but this series sees the platform investing in comedy at an even more involved level. Where the stand-up sets they’ve hosted before stand alone, the project works as a collection of comedians and content united in hilarity but not much else. The format is conducive to a wine tasting, a deviation from the normal Netflix binge model. The sampling encourages discernment, ranking and an open mind.
Each of the episodes starts out with a tracking shot at a microphone poised in front of an empty audience and travels backstage to the central comedian’s dressing room door, where it lapses into a March Madness bracket-esque title sequence — perhaps the formatting is meant to prompt viewers to select a winner from the contest of episodes.
Touted as sketch comedy, the show’s stars took unique approaches to the vague outlines. From Henry Zebrowski’s “A Christmas Carol”-esque character visitation bits to Dr. Brown’s episode filmed in an Iñárritu-inspired single tracking shot where he shuffles amongst three varied characters via fluid costume changes, the show pushes boundaries and conventions. Each comedian was able to develop a wide range of developed characters. Multiplied by eight, “The Characters” provides ample material for spin-offs.
There were played-out selections: Lauren Lapkus as an insufferably nasally foundation- and bottom-heavy bachelorette, Kate Berlant as an artist attempting to stay relevantly eccentric while working on corporate decorations and John Early as a deadbeat bro on a date. However, each comedian brought intricacies to the characters that kept them from feeling trite, or at least used them to further more original aspects of the plots.
On the other hand, most characters were refreshingly original and expressed the innovative writing each comedian brought to the series: Down’s blind Segway detective, Zebrowski’s friend-zoned caveman and Natasha Rothwell’s homeless man who threatens to spoil the books people are reading on the subway with his extensive reading from time spent at the air-conditioned public library.
Some of the characters would prove hard to sustain in the way “Portlandia” has evolved its recurring sketch-based character dynamics; others beg for more screen time. The structure of the series allows viewers to choose the “next generation” comedians they relate to and follow their brand for continued characters. As such, Netflix is acting as a platform for discovery and offshoots, and not a beckoning consolidator.
Although there were a few cringe-worthy aspects to the series, it proved highly self-aware. Zebrowski in brown face proved the most worrisome; however, his entitled Scrooge character tells him, “Here’s a tip: stop being brown” — channeling his character’s curmudgeonly attitude to address the alarming character choice. The character who serves as his clairvoyant addressed his own “racist accent” as Zebrowski begged him to “do the Grinch s—.” The self-cognizance also surfaces in Paul W. Down’s (Troy on “Broad City”) episode as his girlfriend (Abbi Jacobsen) tells him, “Blind jokes are never funny,” before the episode continues with Down’s blind Segway detective character inspecting crimes with his heightened other senses.
If you’re looking to find your next favorite comedian (and you’ve already read Scene’s top picks), “The Characters” proves a viable way to access a variety of styles and narrow down your favorites in a Scene-esque March Madness showdown. (Note: Natasha Rothwell won my bracket.)