Big Lake - "Josh Comes Home"/"Lee Harvey Osworld"

Big Lake - "Josh Comes Home"/"Lee Harvey Osworld"

Big Lake premieres tonight on Comedy Central at 10pm EST, with back-to-back episodes.

I was more excited for the sum of Big Lake's parts than I was for the whole. Having seen Chris Gethard improvise a bunch at the UCB theater in New York, I was thrilled his whip-smart sensibilities and unabashed quirkiness were finally finding a recognizable home—as a lead, no less. Horatio Sanz's naivete would fit well into the best friend role, and as for Chris Parnell, I'd laugh if he so much as read selections from Mein Kampf.

Then there was the show format: a multi-camera laugh track sitcom. That part wasn't as appealing, simply because laugh tracks aren't my thing. I like comedy that's surprising, and laugh track shows are inherently written with this wink-nudge "Here comes the joke train!" type of dialogue. There's something deeply familiar about laugh track comedy; it's reminiscent of sitcoms past, corniness and all. It's not a huge deal, though. Shows like How I Met Your Mother have transcended sitcom sappiness and have, for the most part, presented their own spin on the dated format. Given Big Lake's stars and producing muscle of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, I was at least curious to see if this particular spin could be as exciting as the show's talent roster.

Well, sort of! Big Lake has a lot of traditional sitcom trappings, spelled out in the first of tonight's two episode premiere. Josh (Gethard) was a fast-talkin' banker on Wall Street who lost hundreds of millions of dollars, so he's forced to move home and sort his life out. His father, like Red on That '70s Show, probably means well but only gives Josh grief for losing the family retirement fund; his mother, meanwhile, tries to be more sympathetic. Josh also reunites with his 13 year old brother, the golden child of the family. "He's a good son," his father says a few times. "Dad, every time you say he's the good son, the implication is that I'm not the good son," Josh points out. His father pauses, contemplating. "He's a good son," he repeats.

There are only a finite number of those types of send-ups, thankfully. The rest of Big Lake is a lot darker and twisted than it appears on the surface. Josh's brother, for example, only plays the lispy golden boy during the day; by night he drops the front and becomes a tough-as-nails drug dealer and small-crimes perpetrator, threatening Josh to keep his mouth shut by covertly flashing a piece. Josh reunites with his best friend Glenn (Sanz), who went to prison and, unrelated, stole a snake and was bitten to shreds in the process. He's a puppy dog with a mean streak that only extends to spray painting "suck it" on an overpass. Mr. Henkel (Parnell), Josh's former history teacher, joins the fold to help Josh scheme back the money he lost. And though Josh loved the guy back in the day, Henkel barely remembers Josh and is now obsessed with ogling younger girls and moving to Detroit to open some titty bars ("I mean I wanna get there when they open," he adds). Each episode focuses on one of the hare-brained ideas to raise quick cash. The first, "Josh Comes Home," finds the gang begging brother Jeremy to give up his Barry Bonds signed baseball so they can hock it; the second has Glenn try to sell the town on a killer-themed amusement park, "Lee Harvey Osworld." Not your traditional sitcom at all.

The role Chris Gethard plays was originally given to Jon Heder, who left the show for somewhat vague creative reasons. I'm going to guess it's because he wasn't the right man for the job of playing the straight man in this comically heightened world. Problem is, when Gethard plays totally straight, the moments fly by and jokes fall by the wayside. Josh is Big Lake's big plot mover-forwarder (technically speaking), meaning he's usually the one to have the ideas for what transpires in the next scene, meaning his contribution to that scene is moot. When Josh's own weirdness comes through, the show shifts into a much more playful mode. In the second episode, for example, Josh surmises that the moment things went wrong was after he failed his 20th century history test, so he sets out to retake the thing. His brother, though, keeps trying to sell the answers to Josh, who staunchly refuses. Yet Josh spends way more time fitting markers together to make a long stick than he does studying, and when he finally hits the books, he starts by uttering, "Okay, 1901…"

Sanz and Parnell are already mastering their characters, spinning humor with just how sincerely they say ridiculous lines like, "Now that I see how magnificent your hair looks, I know I made the right decision." Gethard is getting there. Some moments find him not totally comfortable internalizing his performance for the camera; it's understandable, as he comes from a substantial live comedy background. But even after only these two episodes, he's easing into things.

That's the sense I got from Big Lake, too. The show laid out some interesting elements at the top, and hasn't yet figured out the exact formula to make them all work. But the show stands out for rallying against the typical sugar-coated sitcom, and it stands to reason that with parts as strong as it's started with, the whole is going to improve.

Stray observations:

  • When I spoke to Chris Parnell, he mentioned that the show had been picked up for 10 episodes, and would later evaluate whether or not to get the pick-up for the back 90. I thought he was joking because, well, 90. Plus he called it the "Tyler Perry model." Well, guess it's not a joke, and this show could be rushed into syndication. It'd be a hoot to get this show alongside Are We There Yet?.
  • "He spoke fluent Cuban."
  • "So that snake story was just a non sequitur."

More TV Club