Eagleheart airs tonight on adult swim at midnight.
It likely won’t surprise you to hear this, given where it airs, but Eagleheart is seriously weird television. On many adult swim series, there’s a temptation to just let the weirdness stand in for good stories or good characters or even good jokes, but the best adult swim series—your Delocateds or your Children’s Hospitals—find ways to make the weirdness work within more traditional story structures. Delocated tells incredibly complicated stories with surprisingly well-realized characters (considering how many of them are in ski masks). Children’s Hospital may have the highest joke-per-minute ratio on TV, and a huge number of those jokes land. It’s not enough to just be weird; there’s gotta be something else behind the weirdness.
For the most part, there is in Eagleheart, a sort-of-parody of action-packed cop dramas of the ‘80s and early ‘90s (apparently, the show was initially pitched as a more straightforward Walker: Texas Ranger spoof) that has mostly outgrown those initial trappings to become something all of its own. Even in the episodes that don’t work in the first season—and there are a handful of them—there are big laughs to be had, at least two or three times per episode. And in the episodes that do work (a list that would surely include tonight’s episode, “Double Your Pleasure,” and next week’s “Chris & Susie & Brett & Malice”), things keep getting weirder and weirder, but in a surprisingly logical way that almost seems to fit the show’s goofy universe. The conclusion of tonight’s episode is seriously bizarre, but it is so in a way that almost makes sense, as if this particular combination of events has probably happened in our universe at some point, and we just haven’t heard about it yet.
Eagleheart, for those of you who don’t know, features alt-comedy superhero Chris Elliott as Marshal Chris Monsanto, the country’s greatest, most bull-headed, most egotistical marshal. The blowhard jackass who’s mostly good at his job through dumb luck is a staple of these sorts of shows, and the episodes where Monsanto really is just a jerk who lucks into the big busts are probably the show’s weakest outings. Far better are the episodes that seem to examine some weird sort of code that Monsanto has with himself, as with last week’s “Death Punch”—shot first in the show’s production order but aired fifth—in which Monsanto’s guilt over killing a man with the titular act causes him to move in with the man’s family, become the new dad, alienate everyone, then strike up a relationship with his new mother-in-law all in the space of what seems to be about a day. It’s a bizarre story, but it works because Monsanto’s marshal code is so nicely defined. He always seems to be trying to do the “right thing,” but the right thing doesn’t come within 50 miles of his judgment, making his attempts to make things right all the more haphazard.
If there’s a general complaint to be made about Eagleheart, it’s that the show often wastes what’s a pretty terrific supporting cast. Maria Thayer, veteran of dozens of terrific comedic roles, is here as Susie, one of the two new partners assigned to Monsanto after his last string of partners all died in the same bust, but the show gives her virtually nothing to do. The series seems to realize this, even, and the episode airing in two weeks, “Susie’s Song,” is all about her. (It was produced 11th out of 12 episodes.) But the episode doesn’t do much to clarify who Susie is beyond the generic “good marshal” who keeps getting dragged into these scrapes by Monsanto and the others. Thayer’s a great comic actress, and it’s irritating to see her reduced to so much head-shaking and eye-rolling.
Better off is Brett Gelman, playing a strange man child also named Brett. Next week’s episode makes terrific use of Gelman, as Brett, Susie, and Monsanto are the only three witnesses to a hit taken out by the Albanian mob and are forced into hiding while waiting for trial. While there, the presence of Brett in the same house as Susie and Monsanto—who are posing as a married couple—complicates things, leading the other two to suggest he’s their live-in male lover, creating an escalating series of events that leads to the trio taking over a swingers’ club (and that only gets you to about the halfway point of that episode; Eagleheart episodes are packed with both weirdness and plot). Throughout, Brett’s strange simplicity makes for great laughs and a nice contrast to the craziness swirling around him. Sure, the idiot man child is kind of a cliché on adult swim shows at this point, but Gelman and the writers make Brett their own, offering a new spin on familiar material.
Finally, there’s Michael Gladis as The Chief. Gladis, formerly of Mad Men, might seem an odd choice for an absurdist cop comedy, but he seems to be having as much fun as everybody else, even if he’s rarely in episodes very much. (His finest hour was likely in Feb. 17’s “Master Of Da’Skies,” in which Gladis got absolutely every inch of comedy he could out of the phrase “sky crime.”) Like Susie, The Chief is mostly there to fulfill his archetypal cop show role, but it works far better with The Chief, as the archetype seems fully realized. He’s an overweight, cigar-chomping man who seems at times to be an Orson Welles impersonator who didn’t realize he wasn’t the real article, and Gladis relishes every minute playing him.
This is such a solid comedic ensemble that it sometimes doesn’t work when the show takes Monsanto away from his partners and the office to head out into the field and work on a case. The quality of the guest cast is variable, and while the show goes out of its way to come up with interesting storylines that are both weird and vaguely plausible under Monsanto’s skewed inner logic (thus making the weirdness even weirder), there’s a sense that the series just works better when it focuses on the core cast and gets out of the way. Tonight’s terrific episode is a good case in point. After Monsanto starts hanging out with the Conti twins, two guys who were the coolest dudes in his high school, strange stuff starts going down, and the whole cast is quickly drawn into the mayhem. Add the great ensemble to some well-chosen, effectively creepy guest stars and a goofy structure that keeps breaking for commercial breaks every minute or so, and you’ve got what might be the best episode the show has done yet, full of laughs and good plotting.
But even in the episodes that don’t work, there’s plenty to like around the edges of Eagleheart. The show has a healthily sardonic attitude toward the crime shows it offers a spin on, with the marshal characters able to get away with even murder, simply because they’re marshals. Plus, it’s just nice to have Elliott back on TV on a weekly basis. His laconic persona has always made for good laughs, even when he was in utter dross, and he dials everything even further back here, until you’re quite sure Monsanto really believes some of the crazy shit he spews. Eagleheart isn’t perfect yet, but in its first season, it’s found a reliable way to generate laughs and bizarre storylines, and adult swim should give it more time to grow.