TV Roundtable begins anew—if that’s what you’re into

TV Roundtable begins anew—if that’s what you’re into

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next eight installments focus on episodes featuring “interlopers.”

“Yoko” (Flight Of The Conchords, season one, episode four; originally aired July 8, 2007)

(Available on HBO Go)

In which Sutton Foster doesn’t break up the band…

Genevieve Koski: Flight Of The Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie have the quintessential example of what I call a “default friendship.” We all have these: relationships with people you might not necessarily gravitate toward were it not for the extenuating circumstances throwing you together. Young people’s lives are particularly filled with these—roommates, work friends, and yes, bandmates who become close friends simply by virtue of always being around. The thing is, these friendships are highly susceptible to falling apart once those bonding factors are taken out of the mix: Roommates move out, work friends move on, bands break up, and former close friends are scattered to the winds and the outer reaches of social-media circles.

Jemaine and Bret’s friendship is defined by their proximity: Not only are they roommates and bandmates who spend approximately 95 percent of their time together—they even sleep in the same room—but they’re visitors to a foreign country where they know very few people other than each other, their band manager Murray (Rhys Darby), and their No. 1 fan/stalker Mel (Kristen Schaal). Their hilariously low-key, mundane exchanges never exhibit much in the way of affection—in fact, they often seem to openly dislike each other. But they’re best friends because they pretty much have no one else, which makes their relationship particularly prone to falling apart when a third party enters the mix. The first season of the pair’s dearly departed HBO series has a few of these third parties, like Sally, the girl from the eponymous first episode, and a bongo-playing Todd Barry, who breaks up the band in the season finale. But the most memorable interloper into the Conchords’ dynamic is probably Coco—played by Bunheads star Sutton Foster, in her only other notable TV role—in part because the episode is sort-of named for her. “Yoko,” is wall-to-wall excellent, and includes two of the Conchords’ best songs (making this a nice bridge between our previous Roundtable topic and this new one).

What’s interesting about “Yoko” in relation to this theme is that not only is Coco an interloper into Bret and Jemaine’s relationship, but her appearance also turns Jemaine into an interloper into Bret’s relationship with her, at least at first. This goes back to the whole “default friend” thing: Jemaine is so accustomed to always being with Bret that he has difficulty processing Bret doing anything outside of their friendship, including dating. So he tags along on Bret and Coco’s dates, almost reluctantly—I love the scene where he un-invites Bret and then re-invites himself to stay over at Coco’s—and later refers to the dynamic as him “dating them.” This continues until Murray plants the “Yoko” concept in his head, and Jemaine transfers his feelings about Bret abandoning their friendship onto an obsession with Coco breaking up the band, an obsession that actually ends up breaking up the band, at least temporarily.

And that’s the thing with interlopers, particularly in comedy: Their effects are almost always temporary, because comedy tends to thrive on situational stasis. “Yoko” acknowledges this, subtly at first, when Coco interjects “I don’t really see this as a long-term thing” during the “climactic” (I use the term very loosely) scene on a bus, where Jemaine demands Bret choose between Coco and the band/him. Bret chooses Coco despite this, because why wouldn’t he—a girlfriend’s better than what he has going with Jemaine, in his mind—and then Jemaine lets him back in the band/their friendship anyway, because what else does Jemaine have going on, besides tours of bandshells and rotundas with Murray? The default resets because it has to.

The final musical number, “Pencils In The Wind” (previously known as “Sellotape”), is brilliantly staged to reflect this dynamic: Bret and Jemaine begin the song in split screen before eventually coming back together following the aforementioned bus scene. At first they walk and sing with Coco between them, but then she gets crowded out as they walk down and then soar above the street. (Mel momentarily jostles her way in there too, because she’s Mel.) In the end, it’s the two of them, isolated from the street and supporting cast, looking uncomfortable. It’s not exactly a triumphant reunion, especially once the music stops, but it is inevitable.

Ryan McGee: My relationship with Flight Of The Conchords extends back to its stand-up days, when I would obsessively watch any clip I could of Clement and McKenzie performing. As such, I had a pretty clear sense in my head of their musical repertoire when the show started, which sometimes worked against my enjoyment of the show. (Hearing the piano in “If You’re Into It” completely threw me the first time I watched this episode.) It’s a completely stupid reason to hold the show at arm’s length, and over time, Flight Of The Conchords grew into one of my very favorite shows on TV, with the new arrangements a plus rather than a minus by the time the series met its premature end.

One thing that really sticks out about this show is the way it’s surprisingly cinematic. What feels like a show produced on a shoestring budget suddenly turns visually arresting in unlikely places, such as the pan from Bret to Jemaine to Bret halfway through “Pencils In The Wind.” The show’s aesthetic was as low-key as its performances for the majority of the time, but could explode when an episode needed to reflect a key emotional moment or reverent homage to the musical legacies the two so often leaned upon. 

Genevieve, you articulate something I always sensed but could never quite express about the show, something I think made it difficult for people to access this program: Bret and Jemaine stick together out of utilitarian need rather than any emotional bond. Their relationship is one of cost/benefit analysis, with each constantly monitoring the return on investment that the pairing currently yields. Bret writes Jemaine an insanely long goodbye note, but that says more about Bret’s inability to write a short first draft more than anything purely heartfelt. Yet there are always little signifiers in the show that these two aren’t simply robots (regardless of how they dressed in the pilot), but rather stunted creatures who can occasionally conjure up real feelings, even if they barely know how to process them. Rooting for them to self-actualize was one of the chief pleasures of the show, even if, as you point out, Genevieve, doing so would have ended the show’s reason for being. Still, sometimes just hoping for change can be enough, especially with a show that only lasted two seasons.

Erik Adams: We’re tossing the old “prematurely ended” ball around a lot in the early goings of this discussion, but I’m of the mind that Flight Of The Conchords concluded at just the right time. The humor’s muted charms might’ve curdled into cutesiness beyond the 22-episode mark, and Clement and McKenzie used up all their best songs on the first season. Then again, I’ll go to bat any day of the week for season two’s R. Kelly-Usher goof “Both In Love With A Sexy Lady,” featured in the episode where Kristen Wiig serves the same purpose as Sutton Foster in “Yoko.” But that’s part of Flight Of The Conchords’ limited shelf life: Clement, McKenzie, and their co-creator James Bobin found a format, nailed it, and moved on. Am I upset we never got to see Bret and Jemaine go EDM? Sure, but then again we never had to see Bret and Jemaine go EDM.

It’s no shock Flight Of The Conchords earned so much mileage out of the interloper trope: Bret and Jemaine’s everyday existence is so mundane and conflict-free that the slightest disturbance to their ecosystem counts as story-catalyzing conflict. Filtered through the show’s deadpan voice, that could make the interference of a “semi-professional actor/dry cleaner” played by Will Forte feel as consequential as a series of imagined visits from Ziggy Stardust-, Scary Monsters-, and Labyrinth-era David Bowie. (I still routinely crib from Clement’s embodiment of Bowie to this day. “On your face, Bret—on your face.”) The show’s de-glamorized portrayal of the musician’s life positioned the members of Flight Of The Conchords as guys who just wanted to be left alone, even if the only people ever threatening to bug them are their manager, their only fan, or themselves.

I wonder how much of this irritability to presences from within and without has to do with McKenzie and Clement’s incorporation into the New York comedy scene circa 2007. Those associations pulled in some superb supporting talent—the aforementioned Barry, Schaal, Wiig, and Forte, but also Arj Barker, Eugene Mirman, Aziz Ansari, Eliza Coupe (anyone with ties to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, really)—but such a tight-knit community is predisposed to both professional envy and social-circle chauvinism. Yet, one of the biggest jokes of Flight Of The Conchords was that Bret and Jemaine were the ultimate outsiders; in “Yoko,” the band’s breakup doesn’t make headlines—it’s swept under the rug by Murray, surreptitiously using the New Zealand tax payers’ money to manage a failing musical duo. Shooing away the dry cleaners, girlfriends, and other interested parties that aren’t Mel keeps the fictional version of the band from fictional success—but it allowed Flight Of The Conchords to tell the stories it told, for a suitably brief period. 

Phillip Dyess-Nugent: On the question of whether Conchords died an untimely death or went to that great kiwi farm in the sky in the nick of time, I’m on Team Erik. Like a number of shows from Bryan Fuller and Amy Sherman-Palladino, this is a series that I enjoy inordinately but that I’m always aware is skating perilously close to crossing over into the Land Of Twee, and even with Lucy Lawless dropping by with her original accent, the seams were starting to show by the end. This show didn’t originate the idea of an indie-music comedy duo playing at being premium-cable Monkees: Tenacious D had its own HBO series that launched a decade before Flight Of The Conchords. But Conchords has a special, weird vibe. The action between music videos isn’t over-the-top surreal, just a little tweaked, slightly off. It can disorient you, to the point that I remember watching it and getting lost trying to decide whether Jemaine Clement—who looks like a young Stephen King after a collagen mishap—is stunningly movie-star handsome or disturbingly geeky-looking. (My final verdict: Ehh, whatever he’s doing, it seems to be working for him.) For me, the secret star and tentpole of the show is Rhys Darby, who manages to make Murray neither an obvious boob nor a self-deceived lout but a good guy. He’d always be in over his head if the good fairy on his shoulder didn’t make sure that the stakes of what he’s involved with never get that high. It all feels right for a show about guys from New Zealand, if only because, in the world of Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, and Hugh Jackman, it feels as if the defining thing about New Zealanders working in show business in America is that they’re not quite Australian. 

David Sims: Aw, I think you guys are being too hard on Bret and Jemaine’s relationship. There is a coldness to their interactions, but I think that’s partially the show playing up on their status as polite New Zealanders in scary New York City. Their relationship is certainly forced, since they’re basically all they’ve got in the world, but it’s also loving in a very weird, specific way that only really comes out when they’re singing together. Otherwise they’re utterly reserved even though they fight like angry siblings—especially Jemaine, who mumbles grumpily with the best of them in this episode.

Bret approaches every task with a mix of childlike nervousness and determination, and Coco’s no different—here’s a grown-up woman who would happily just be embarking on something casual with her workmate, and Bret can barely work up the courage to kiss her and can’t shoo his best friend out of the picture. But by the end of the episode he’s far more serious about the whole thing than she is, as Genevieve pointed out, even though things stay very chaste.

I said that Bret and Jemaine’s feelings about each other only really come out in song, and the same also goes for their more animal instincts. Both are on display in “Yoko’s” two songs—“If You’re Into It” gets me every time with Jemaine giving voice to Bret’s increasingly depraved propositions to Coco; “Pencils In The Wind” is a very lovely, soaring ballad reuniting the pair to their awkward glory.

Phil and Erik mention below how gentle this show is and I don’t disagree—I was almost surprised when HBO Go told me this episode was rated TV-14, but I guess it does include a song about Sutton Foster getting double-teamed—but I also think it’s one of the best New York City shows of this generation. Flight Of The Conchords took advantage of its location in a way few NYC shows do, emphasizing Bret and Jemaine’s insignificance in the face of a vast, uncaring metropolis. No wonder Bret and Jemaine are like security blankets for each other and rely on gentle dopes like Murray and Mel; the alternative is too scary to contemplate.



Oh, and I agree that this show ended right when it should have. The strain was starting to show in season two, even though there are still some standout moments. But I think the biggest thing Flight Of The Conchords always had going for it was how it took almost everyone by surprise. (I knew next to nothing of their comedy before the show launched.) It was such a soft, weird, adorable show that would consistently catch me off-guard with an epic musical moment or a disarmingly witty one-liner.

Donna Bowman: Oh, Yoko. I’ve been a Yoko (or at least a band girlfriend that other band members regarded as a potential Yoko). I’ve been Yoko’d (as a band member finding herself on the outs because of another member’s girlfriend). And as a John Lennon fan from way back in my obsessed teenager days, I’ve always wanted to defend Yoko as being misunderstood. It warms my heart that, despite her name becoming cultural shorthand for a force of destruction, the real Yoko has carried on serenely and transcended even the tempestuous forces that initially defined her by partnering with the surviving Beatles on legacy projects.

As much as our sympathies are rightly with Sutton Foster’s long-suffering Coco in this episode, however, the Yoko effect is real and undeniable. The bond between creative partners is inevitably threatened by strong romantic attachments that turn one partner’s head away from the work, and from the concentrated intimacy that it takes to do the work. Yes, the gender politics of the trope are unfortunate, going all the way back to that black-haired artistic peacenik Delilah breaking up the headbanging team of Samson and Yahweh. But even if the situation is intensified and complicated by the boys’-club notion that letting women in ruins everything, the underlying psychology remains simply human, not Mars and Venus. I love the way this episode turns Jemaine and Murray into reluctant bad guys, while Bret does his best not to hurt their feelings until they go too far. When Jemaine protests that the dates are always about what Coco wants—“It’s not just you and her going on these dates; I’m there too”—we almost have to admire his stubbornness, willing into being a new, inclusive Conchords paradigm that he knows deep down is shared by nobody. And when Murray advises Bret to “hold onto that one” right after he’s accused “that one” of being a cancer on their shared endeavor, it’s a glimpse of the sweet optimism that underlies this strangely sunny show.

Todd VanDerWerff: I absolutely loved this show when it was on, but I haven’t rewatched a single episode of it until just now. Watching “Yoko” in 2013 is a curious experience, a return to the things I was thinking and feeling back in 2007, which already feels like a lifetime ago. What’s more, I was sort of surprised that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did back when I was watching it first-run. Maybe I’ve changed too much, or maybe the show’s gentle spirit is not what I look for in a comedy anymore, or maybe I’m just way too tired (it’s the latter), but something about this sort of washed right over me as I was watching it. Still, I was reminded by how completely incidental the plot was to enjoying this show. The real fun in any given episode of Conchords is in watching the little fillips around the edges, in seeing Murray conduct his weekly attendance checks or in watching the gleam in Kristen Schaal’s eyes as Mel talks about how much she loves the guys. In a real way, all of the characters on this show are interlopers, trying to break up the “couple” at the center, but there’s an impermeability that keeps Bret and Jemaine together—and there’s a comfort in that. While I’m in the camp of thinking that this show ended at just the right time (particularly since the show’s creative personnel all asked HBO to end the show), I do find myself hoping that everyone will reunite for a handful of episodes somewhere down the line. If anyone’s going to make that happen, it’s HBO.

Stray observations

There’s so many amazing small moments in “Yoko” that I could fill this whole section with them, but I’ll keep it to two: Murray surreptitiously checking out his shorts in the store window at the end of the opening scene, and Kristen Schaal’s line-reading of “Is she stupid?” while discussing Coco with Murray. [GK]

Murray trying to figure out if Coco is indeed a Yoko: “Is she an artist? Does she stay in bed a lot? What about peace, is she into peace?” [GK]

I mean, come on, who would prefer Coco’s poster to Jemaine’s[GK]

Jemaine’s ideas of non-girly dates for the three of them to go on: Paintball, kickboxing championship, strip club (another one). [GK]

I have missed Bret’s animal-print clothing. He has a seemingly never-ending supply of shirts, sweaters, and other tops that proudly display various members of the animal kingdom. [RM]

Sutton Foster’s appearance has me wondering what would happen if Bret and Jemaine came across someone speaking full Amy Sherman-Palladino. Their heads would just pop off, right? [RM]

Lacking the more lurid content of a Sex And The City or even a Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight Of The Conchords always seemed like an odd fit for HBO. (It’s hard to imagine a series this dryly comedic existing anywhere else, though.) It did command the requisite amount of Emmy attention for an HBO comedy, however, with 10 nominations split between its two seasons. “Yoko” received a nod for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2008, among a murderers’ row of sitcom episodes from the ’07-’08 TV season: 30 Rock’s “Cooter” (which won) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (which should’ve won), The Office’s “Dinner Party” (one of that show’s last indisputably great half-hours) and the pilot (“Pie-lette”) of Pushing Daisies. [EA]

I feel as though Flight Of The Conchords gets left out of the conversation about the spate of TV musicals post-Glee—maybe because it predates Glee by a good two years? Or is it because the musical numbers, though steeped in catharsis and genuine emotion, so often carry a tinge of irony? Here’s the thing, though: The purposely ham-fisted metaphors of “Pencils In The Wind” get my heart racing way more than any New Directions rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” [EA]

Flight Of The Conchords is the source of one of my all-time favorite pop-culture Halloween costumes, which involved minimal effort from myself (my mid-to-late-’00s look was very Jemaine, right down to the mutton chops) and was a tremendous undertaking on the part of my now-wife, who managed to pull off Bret’s facial-scruff-and-thrift-store-threads aesthetic quite nicely. On this viewing, however, I found myself associating more and more with Murray, if only because my own pilgrimage to New York’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (site of the 1964-65 World’s Fair and “Yoko”’s “If You’re Into It” sequence) was quite like the consulate-cum-band-manager’s scenic tour of other monuments to Robert Moses’ hubris. [EA]

I’ll also ditto Erik on what an incongruously gentle show this is for HBO. You could watch it back-to-back with just about any New York movie from the ’70s, or even Barney Miller, and be amazed at how much the mood of that city changed in 30 years, to the point that people who lived through the 2003 blackout were more likely to have a feel-good anecdote about it than a horror story like the ones that people tell about the blackout of 1977. If anything, that gentleness is even more missed now, when what passes for a scripted comedy series on HBO is a show like Veep, which often amounts to people spending half an hour trying to top each other’s garishly profane insults. [PDN]

I don’t mean to tell the Conchords their business, but with that business about “Brown paper, white paper/ Sticking together,” shouldn’t the roll-of-tape song be a racial-togetherness number, their “Ebony And Ivory”? [PDN]

Seriously, though, I’d solve the world’s hardest puzzle for you guys. [PDN]

The best gag of the episode is definitely Coco immediately producing a sandwich after Jemaine decries her “favoritism” in bringing Bret lunch. [DS]

Sutton Foster is ridiculously cute in her little arc on this show. What’s the story there? I understand the appearance of every member of the New York alternative-comedy scene, but Foster already had a Tony Award. It’s one of the weirdest bits of stunt casting, especially considering she never really gets to sing. [DS]

I would absolutely go with Murray on his Famous Rotundas Tour. I love the way he berates Jemaine for not being into it: “Where’s your fact sheet?” [DB]

In the cinematic vein that Ryan mentioned, I can’t decide whether it’s brilliant editing or bad editing when a stunning, slow push-in to Bret starting to sing his two-hour love song is almost immediately interrupted by a handheld shot of Jemaine deciding he doesn’t have to listen. [DB]

I’m sorry Mel’s husband Doug isn’t in this episode. He’s also the subject of the line from this show that my wife and I quote to each other all the time, even though Mel says it: “Why did you come, Doug? Why did you come if you didn’t want to start a fire?” [TV]

Next week: Erik Adams introduces The Simpsons to “Homer’s Enemy,” Frank Grimes (or “Grimey” as he liked to be called). After that, Donna Bowman wonders if multiple My Boys interlopers are “Clubhouse Cancer.” (“Clubhouse Cancer” is available on Netflix.) 

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