The Life & Times Of Tim returns tonight on HBO at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.
I loved The Life & Times Of Tim as soon as I saw the pilot last year. It wasn't super original or anything, but I liked how simple the show was. The main character of Tim wasn't all that fleshed out, which placed the situations at the forefront of the comedy—uncomfortable things like hiring a hooker and having your girlfriend and her entire family walk in, or pretending to be Mexican so your company can get props for having a minority in management (my favorite episode). Things would escalate, and Tim would never speak up; he was just along for the ride. Thus he'd find himself inviting that same hooker to join them for dinner, or giving a speech in broken Spanish to a group of minority business leaders. The repercussions were minor and the jokes tight, with episodes clocking in at just over 12 minutes. It was great in small doses, and as long as you joined Tim and didn't question much why he'd do the things he did—he's just a defeated soul—the show was a caustic good time. Plus that squiggly animation was a hoot.
It doesn't surprise me that the show struggled to find an audience last season. As I said, there wasn't much of Tim to glob on to week-to-week—Tim's reactions are minimal, the rest of the characters too loony to root for. But I enjoyed coming back and seeing what kind of trouble Tim would find himself in, and thought the writing was savvy enough to take things to an outrageous, cartoonish place that still seemed somehow believable. Thus Tim works best when the plot is minimal, when it's easy to draw a line from point A (the beginning) to point B (the ridiculous end), and the trajectory makes a bit of sense.
In its first outing of the against-all-odds second season, Tim misses that last point by just a smidge, but still manages to do a lot right. "Tim's Beard," finds Tim in a rare emotional place, distraught over his recent break-up and having grown a deliciously uncomfortable beard to hide his shame. His office, sick of seeing the patchy face-scarf, decide to place bets on whether or not they can tell him apart from a homeless person. They can't, and as it turns out, the homeless guy Vince they find is actually more qualified for Tim's job than Tim—or so he is through the eyes of Tim's idiot boss, whose naivete I continue to love. So it's Tim vs. Hobo Tim, but rather than keeping him around for the remainder of the episode, the boss sends Tim on a sidequest to prove he's not depressed: by capturing photos of himself on a date with Gladys, the only weirdo in the office desperate enough to go out with him. Losing the narrow focus hurts the episode a bit, though the individual lines—Stu overhears the boss saying "Tim. Beard. Loser. Can the guy," which Tim thinks could mean, "Can the guy… look any better?"—stand out on their own.
Same goes for part two, "Unjustly Neglected Drama," which diverges a little too far from the main story. Tim goes to visit Stu in his apartment; Stu wants to get high, so he calls his dealer for some "tickets." But for the first time in the many years they've known each other, the dealer (voiced by the always funny Will Forte) tries to pawn off actual tickets to his play Season Of Death: The Only Thing Worse Than Death… Is Life. ("It's like an Arthur Miller play, but much slower.") Feeling generous, Tim convinces Stu to take the tickets, and the pair go off to suffer through four hours of torture. And all the way through Tim being asked for his honest feedback—they really want his criticism—and giving them some jabs, I was on board. It was a lighthearted ribbing of actor-types who say they want honesty but really don't, who don't know when to end a play, and who think every line of dialogue is just you reenacting a scene from something. The episode lost me when Tim and Stu return to Stu's place to find that a guy Tim met ever so briefly at the beginning has committed a murder, but the police think Tim's somehow involved—and his alibi's proven shaky when the actors won't back it up out of anger. It was whatever the comedy equivalent of a deus ex machina is.
But when it comes to comedy, simplicity is hard to find. Shows like 30 Rock and The Office pay big dividends now once we've gotten to know the characters (though maybe not this exact season), and on the other end of things, as much as I love Tim & Eric Awesome Show, I'm really lost a lot of the time. With Tim, I know what I'm going to get—it's the same uncomfortable, outrageous humor as It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Party Down, parred down to 12-minute increments that do little to build up a mythology or backstory. I like Tim as just the guy witnessing the madness around him, especially when the world's surreal and silly enough that when the bum puts on a scarf, the boss exclaims, "God, I respect him." The boss is insane, just like everyone else in Tim's life, and when madness is accepted as reality, you can have a hell of a lot of fun.