Bunk debuts tonight on IFC at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
In the fall of 2010, I had the chance to see what was a very early version of the show that would evolve into Bunk at the New York Television Festival. That show was called Pointless, and it contained a handful of elements that haven’t made it to the television version—like the conceit that players were rewarded in worthless prizes, such as dinette sets or putting greens—but for the most part it’s what you’re going to see on your TV tonight. Bunk has (slightly) higher production values than that independently produced pilot, but that’s the only real difference. But where I loved Pointless, I’m less enamored of Bunk, even as I think it has all the stuff needed to make a great, weird game show.
The idea behind the show is pretty simple: Three contestants—all comedians—are lined up to participate in a series of ridiculous challenges, overseen by host Kurt Braunohler, who’s got the jocular terror of the game show host down pat. As would be suggested by everybody involved being a comedian, the show is far from a traditional game show and is, instead, something closer to a weird blend of improv comedy sketch show and variety show. The game show elements are largely beside the point, and the scoring is mostly present to give Braunohler something extra to do. Around the edges, various sketch elements, like producer “Gabe” carrying on a not-so-friendly rivalry with Braunohler or the idea of the show’s 15-second timer being broken, necessitating a series of different ways to count off those 15 seconds, creep in. The TV show the series most resembles in this incarnation is probably Whose Line Is It Anyway, but even that’s a bad comparison. For better or worse, Bunk is pretty singular, a product steeped in TV but not really like other TV shows.
The problem with things that try to blaze trails like this is that they often have trouble figuring out the right mix of elements to keep things from floating off into space. There’s nothing else on the air like Bunk, so there’s nothing it can turn to in a pinch when it just needs to copy something else. The setup for the show is also extremely dependent on the comedians assembled for each given program and the material for the comedy bits goofing on game shows. For the most part, the series has come up with good panels of comedians both fairly well-known—Ben Garant is in tonight’s episode, while Eugene Mirman is in next week’s—and not as well-known—series co-creator Ethan T. Berlin is the weird, mordant soul of tonight’s episode. Thus, their answers to questions tend to range from mildly amusing to very funny, which is always a good thing.
No, Bunk probably suffers in that it tries too hard to give these comedians “wacky” things to do. One challenge tonight is to draw arms on the Venus de Milo, inspired by the idea of “fear” (a shoutout from the audience). Another bit in tonight’s episode that ends up being kind of a dud involves the contestants pulling out puppies from their booths and then “shaming” the puppies by insulting them or making them feel bad about themselves. It’s filled with forced jocularity, and that’s often when the show feels most hollow—when everybody involved is laughing and laughing, but the jokes just aren’t all that funny. In that respect, the series has the same problem multi-camera sitcoms do (and I rather missed the element that was present in Pointless that suggested all of these characters were trapped in some sort of ninth-circle-of-Hell-produced game show, thus giving things a multi-cam flair).
Fortunately, there are plenty of good bits here and there to keep things rolling along. There’s a lightning round in next week’s episode that’s pretty ingenious, and I like smaller gags, like Braunohler leading the three contestants over to the “station” where they’ll assemble something for one of the challenges, hand-in-hand, like they’re kindergarteners. In general, the simpler the challenge is, the funnier the show is, and when, in next week’s episode, the comedians are asked to assemble a movie pitch via magnets of weird items, the show starts to take flight, just a little bit. There are still so many moving parts that the whole thing can feel a little desperate, but when the show locks in on something, it knows how to get the right amount of laughs.
Bunk isn’t as good as Pointless—or, at least, it’s not as good as my memory of Pointless—but there’s still plenty of fun stuff involved in watching it. There are worse ways to spend a Friday night, and all of the right ingredients are here for a show that could run for years and be very funny for all of them. That there are as many funny bits as there are in these early episodes—when the show’s writers are still figuring out what does and doesn’t work—is a promising notion for the future, and it’s easy to believe that all involved will iron this out into some lean, hilarious comedy by the time the first season is up. If this show sounds appealing to you, then it is very possible this will be your new favorite show. On the other hand, if it sounds irritating, you probably won't have a great time with it. There aren’t any other shows like Bunk on the air, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.