Players premieres tonight on Spike, 10:30pm Eastern
Upright Citizens Brigade's Matt Walsh set himself up nicely for his first solo showrunner effort Players. He chose to only loosely script episodes, filling in the gaps with improvisation familiar to he and his ensemble. He cast fellow UCB cast member Ian Roberts as the costar of the series, a man he's learned to trust over the years as a performer. And he set the show in a sports bar, following the lives and drama of the people who work there. They're like a little dysfunctional family, something Walsh surely noticed when he worked at a sports bar himself in college.
Much like Spike's other improv sitcom Factory, Players reminds me of a better-than-average live improv show: Characters each get a moment to establish themselves, and the humor comes from throwing them at each other in unexpected ways—and there are plenty of jokey bits to break things up. Roberts establishes himself as the curmudgeon-beyond-his-years co-owner, leaving his brother (Walsh) as the fun one the staff adores. Roberts decides to have a grand re-opening of the bar to drive up some new customers, and hinges the decision on a new set of rules and regulations he wants to put into effect. It's things like calling waiters "food quarterbacks" and telling customers, "I know you're already thirsty for sports, but is there anything physical you'd like to drink?" Walsh, in the mean time, makes his staff go out and buy obscure sports memorabilia, like a textbook signed by Jackie Robinson, and throws little get-togethers for the staff. It's at one get-together where Barb (June Diane Raphael) realizes she's in love with Walsh's character (even though he makes her clean up diarrhea), and Roberts' character makes an awkward pass at Krista (Danielle Schindler), who can't stand him. Meanwhile, another employee doesn't have an apartment and sleeps on the couch, and the other elderly one hits on customers. It's a weird, dysfunctional family who gets to hook up with one another, and there are a lot of balls in the air this first go-round.
The escalation in comedy is a bit uneven. Roberts gets more and more frustrated as Walsh keeps going behind his back and making decisions without him, and the build is enjoyable to watch. Randomly in the episode, though, Roberts sets out to prove he's not a racist and engages in an uncomfortable conversation with two African-American women, which becomes about how he's more attracted to one than the other; later, he accidentally shoots another African-American woman in the face with a T-shirt gun (from the Heisler!!!!! beer distributor, which I think is just some fake name they came up with—my fake name) and she screams for the NAACP. For a natural-feeling show, it's a pretty forced moment, and a lynchpin one at that.
But I'm hopeful for Players. The more these improvisers have to play around with these characters, the more nuanced and fleshed-out they'll inevitably become. The funniest, most memorable moments in the pilot come when the two brothers find themselves at odds, either in front of the staff or behind closed doors. During the work get-together, Roberts goes over-the-edge with a few jokes, and Walsh is there to lessen the blow and cover his tracks. It's funny and a little sweet. As brothers, they have a rich history that will surely start finding its way on-screen; as friends who have improvised for a long time together, I'm confident that's what they're after.
- Sorry about all the Walsh/Roberts references. Their characters have names (Bruce and Ken), but if you're just going to tune in to the pilot, I figured it would be easier to keep track of.
- "Remember: dead inside."
- There's one moment of the pilot where the action flashes back, a device these guys should play with more.