Watching Kroll Show is like channel surfing in hell, or just being stuck with a sad cable package. It’s a sketch show modeled on reality television, and every time one sketch reaches a commercial break, the authorial remote-handler flips to another. The shows aren’t far off from the lineups at E!, Bravo, and VH1, from candid reality shows loosely tying wealthy people to some gimmick premise, to the occasional fictional program, like a Canadian teen drama. But Kroll Show doesn’t just riff on cheap entertainment. The pleasure is in the cumulative experience, the way characters from one show would gradually spin off whole franchises. The goal of the reality talent on the shows within Kroll Show is to keep leveraging inexplicable fame into even more inexplicable fame. As a portrait of shamelessness, Kroll Show resembles nothing so much as The Comeback.
But one small tweak has obliterated the channel-surfing idea and the impact of the show to boot. In season one, after the credits there would be a substantial confessional bit where star Nick Kroll speaks to the camera as himself, or his persona anyway, in an improvised stand-up routine. Now that bit has been chopped up and spread throughout the episode like commercial breaks. Instead of flipping from PubLIZity, the show about two whiny public relations agents named Liz, to Armond Of The House, the show about Los Angeles’ foremost pet plastic surgeon, Kroll Show takes a breather with Kroll breaking the fourth wall. Sometimes he riffs on Brussels sprouts from a dozen different angles, hoping some of them stick. Most of the time he has a candid, but comedic chat with someone on the cast or crew, but the effect is the same throughout. Even when these bits are funny, they’re still providing solid ground. Kroll Show used to be relentless. Now, it’s friendly.
Make no mistake: The sketches themselves are still baring teeth, starting with the fodder for the shows within the Show. The one thing that unites the collection of idiots played by Kroll and co-stars like Jon Daly and John Mulaney is a lack of self-awareness, whether they’re the elderly buffoons on cable-access prank show Too Much Tuna or the titular Rich Dicks, now joined by Amy Poehler as a sister. Most of them are dumb, but rare is a character like Bobby Bottleservice, whose ignorance has a certain sweetness. Dr. Armond is a family man whose worst quality is an expressionless face and an attendant aloofness, so to compensate, he’s surrounded by an ungrateful snot of a son, a lawyer who leaves as soon as he learns it might take some time to get paid, and Kelsey Grammer. In fact, money drives a lot of characters on Kroll Show, even the occasional non-wealthy dweeb. Mulaney’s George St. Geegland snaps at a prank victim on Too Much Tuna who tries to take the overloaded tuna sandwich anyway. “You don’t get that. We’re gang-shooting these today.”
If that’s a comment on the kinds of people we let ourselves be entertained by, the stories on the shows are just as harsh, with quick emotional arcs that may as well have been scripted. Kid rapper C-Czar bonds with one of his six dads on a show whose purpose is to teach and bribe him into being a good teen father. He tears up within minutes of meeting the guy. After a fight, Liz and Liz incoherently make up in the middle of their office before yelling at people for watching them. The Rich Dicks even get momentarily self-conscious about what they put on-camera, but then plunge ahead anyway, snorting lines in the middle of their ostensible YouTubeulogy for their grandfather. Kroll Show isn’t exposing the way reality TV “writes” stories in its manipulation and editing. The show is suggesting that real people, at least these kinds of people, are conforming their lives to the reality show structures they know so well. Reality TV isn’t imitating life because it doesn’t have to. Life is imitating reality TV.
But what really elevates Kroll Show is the two-way street. It isn’t just about the menagerie of deluded people pursuing fame at all costs. It’s also about the audience that supports these people. Once again, watching the shows from season one expand and grow into new premises or season-long gimmicks is mesmerizing, like Wheels Ontario star Bryan La Croix selling out in all kinds of ways apparently to support his music career. It’s just a recurring sketch that uses a twist to justify itself, but the execution is essential. Co-creator Jonathan Krisel directs the sketches so that each has its own look and style, from the self-produced cable-access show about a renegade geologist to the jittery Bravo-style candid productions that occasionally have to subtitle sentences the sound guys couldn’t pick up on the fly. The on-screen promo announcing the debut of Bryan La Croix’s music video covers much of the action in a very emotional scene of a teen mother giving birth on Wheels Ontario, and then, when the video begins, it sounds nothing like him, and the song, “NTR 2 Win” is hilariously questionable in content.
Nothing sums up Kroll Show like the new season of Armond Of The House. Cameras follow Dr. Armond into the room where he finds his wife (Tess Broussard) dead, which the producers see as an opportunity: Armond Of The House Arrest. The show is intercut with her awful amateur music videos. Detectives play-act murder scenarios in the background of scenes, and any time someone brings up the wife’s murder, the camera smash-cuts and dollies in on her dead body, often in black-and-white, accompanied by scream sound effects. It’s hilarious, heinous, and uncomfortably close to reality.
Created by: Nick Kroll, Jonathan Krisel, John Levenstein
Starring: Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, Jon Daly, John Mulaney, Amy Poehler
Returns: Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on Comedy Central
Format: Half-hour sketch comedy
Three episodes watched for review