Comic Book Men

Comic Book Men debuts tonight on AMC at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Comic Book Men is a weird hybrid of a bunch of stuff. It never quite works as its own entity, even though most of the parts making it up are enjoyable in the moment. It exists, by and large, because AMC needs to figure out a way to keep the sizable Walking Dead audience watching AMC, and the network has yet to decide how it wants to follow up the huge success of the zombie show. (To this day, it continues to hedge its bets on which pilots it will pick up going forward, closing in on two years after when it greenlit the pilot for Hell On Wheels.) Honestly, following up that trudge through the end of days with a light-hearted, geek-centric reality show isn’t the worst idea in the world, but Comic Book Men, for as entertaining as it can be, suffers a bit because it has trouble figuring out what it wants to focus on.

The center of the show is Jay And Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, the comic book store that Kevin Smith owns in New Jersey. Crammed full of comics, memorabilia, and other geek-tastic stuff, the store is presided over by the calm, acerbic Walter. (When Smith appeared at the Television Critics Association press tour, he said that this was Walter’s dream job, but he was too timid of financial repercussions to take it, even when Smith handed it to him on a silver platter.) Also working at the store are the conscientious and hard-working Ming, who’s constantly teased by the others, and Mike, who’s basically the polar opposite of Ming and has facial hair. (Incredible characterization this is not, but it doesn’t really need to be.) Rounding out the cast are Smith, who appears in segments where the guys get together to record a geek-oriented podcast, and a heavily bearded, mordant fellow named Brian, whose generally anarchic spirit makes him the guy who will likely be the show’s breakout character.

There are any number of fun shows you could make about these guys. You could do a show that digs into what it’s like to work in a store that mostly peddles collectibles and things people don’t really need in a time of economic downturn. You could do a Pawn Stars type show, where people come in and give the guys stuff to appraise the value of. You could just do a show where they sit around and shoot the shit about geeky topics—sort of a reality show version of Smith’s first film, Clerks. Or you could do a show that’s about day-to-day life in the store and what it’s like to be in a place that brings you into contact with all manner of people, many of whom are a little too devoted to their particular geek arcana.

The problem with Comic Book Men—and also its saving grace, weirdly—is that it tries to be all four of those shows at once. Any time one of the shows starts to take off, there’s an abrupt cut to another version of the show. You have to settle in, and the series only gives you enough time to get just a bit acclimated before it’s off to something else. The guys are personable, for the most part, and Brian could end up being the kind of reality TV personality who’s great fun to both laugh with and contemplate in a “People like this exist?” sort of manner, but the show also feels edited within an inch of its life to make sure you never get bored. That makes it hard to get too invested, because the show is always cutting away to something else. There’s something to be said for texture and world-building in reality shows, particularly in ones that don’t try to pit contestants against each other in odd competitions. A show like Pawn Stars succeeds because those guys feel like interesting characters and the world they inhabit feels like just enough of a departure from our own world that it’s fun to visit. That’s not really true here.

That said, there’s still plenty of fun to be had, particularly when all four guys are onscreen and bouncing off of each other. In tonight’s first episode—the only one made available to critics—Walter sends the other three guys out on a mission to unload a bunch of crap they have laying around the store on the unsuspecting populace of a local flea market. (For some reason, Brian gets in on this, even though he doesn’t work at the store and seems against the idea of work in general, and one can feel the heavy hand of the producers lurking just off screen.) There’s some good stuff here, from how Brian tries to turn his pile of crap—like a stained, dancing Bart Simpson doll—into cash to a moment when a fellow flea market seller takes Brian to task for treating Ming poorly.

Similarly, the Pawn Stars side of the show can be fun. There’s a moment when someone brings in a Bob Kane sketch of Batman and Robin that has a lot of fun with the sorts of editing tricks you might see on the obvious inspiration for these segments or on Storage Wars (and thank God we don’t have to wait through an artificially inserted commercial break just to learn what’s behind the curtain). There’s an unfortunate sense here that these people who enter the store with their memorabilia are only there for the audience to laugh at them—“See, the guys at the store aren’t the freaks; these people are the freaks!” the show seems to be saying—but, well, when there’s a woman who treats her Chucky doll like her most prized possession or a guy who carries around a bag that’s handcuffed to his wrist, despite featuring no nuclear state secrets… it’s not hard to come to that conclusion on your own, even if the show seems to push it a little too hard in the editing choices. And there’s also a great supporting character here in someone named Rob, a movie-memorabilia expert who wanders in near the end to shoot down one of these hopefuls who’s clearly dazed about the value of his items.

Where it all falls apart, though, is both in melding these two shows together and in trying to graft on podcast segments (which get Smith involved) as well as moments when the guys just hang around the store and tease each other. The podcast topics get brought up and discarded almost as quickly as possible, as if the show didn’t really want us to be digging around in the geek weeds with these guys, even though a topic like “What’s the scariest horror movie you’ve ever seen?” isn’t exactly along the lines of “Is Superman faster than the Flash?” There’s the potential for a fun show here that’s just about these guys laying into each other and discussing their many nerdy obsessions. Instead, the show is always introducing challenges or weird people off the streets to keep things galumphing along in fairly strained fashion. There’s plenty of value in all of the various shows stitched together into the Franken-reality show on display, but the series needs to better focus if it hopes to earn eyeballs past the week-one gawkers. 

Stray observations:

  • Against my better judgment, I’d be willing to cover this one week to week, if you guys seem into it. Watch it tonight and let me know. Lord knows I don’t have anything better to do. (This is not true; I actually have lots of better things to do, but AMC is pretty good with screeners, and who needs free Saturdays?)