When I spoke to Jon Benjamin earlier this year, he told me that when writing Jon Benjamin Has A Van, he wrote the last episode first, where he was to take the most creative risks with the news magazine format he was originally sticking to. Then, given the results of that writing endeavor, he decided to structure every episode in that way: The news angle is just a front for the absurd world Jon Benjamin finds himself in every week. When all is said and done though, "Smoking" resembles the rest of the show in structure only up to a point. It's one of the weirdest of the entire season, and for the good of the series, ends on a note that defies all laws of continuity.
See, every previous episode derails quite a bit, but by the end, Jon Benjamin is back in the van with his team. If you were to concede the point that the fictional Jon Benjamin probably lives a really fucked-up life, then in theory the show could continue on after each episode, as if nothing had happened. (Except for the time Leo died, but we don't talk about that.) This one was different: The episode kicks off while Benjamin is reporting on a story about Jesus as a pipe smoker. Metallica's Kirk Hammett even sings a song about it. Then, leaving the church where he'd conducted the interview, he decides to buy a pack of Freedom cigarettes and take up smoking. Soon he's whisked away from the van and into a French New Wave film (or maybe just a Kia commercial) full of hot women, brightly colored balloons, long drives, black-and-white loft parties, ennui, surrealist dialogue, and lots of cigarette smoking.
It's the most ambitious spoof in the show's run since Jon Benjamin went totally silent chasing Nathan's kidnapper in "Breakdown." Then, when Benjamin goes off to report on another story—a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a preacher who keeps wrongfully predicting the end of the world, played by Bob Odenkirk—he runs into the French-speaking woman from before, and the story's right back on track. It ends with armageddon. "Abso-lutely!"
Without the pressure to cut back to unrelated news segments, "Smoking" effortlessly lets its A-story develop, weaving new characters and situations into a larger narrative. But while I admired how ambitious the episode was, and how it broke the form, there were a couple of jokes running at once, and the humor was sometimes hard to discern. At first Benjamin attempts to go for a straight-up spoof of an arthouse flick, but then it becomes about his relationship with the girl despite a language barrier. Eventually, they can understand each other. Then as far as the Bob Odenkirk stuff goes, I felt like the episode would have been better suited introducing his character earlier. There's much more humor to be mined from the cult-like world Odenkirk inhabits, and because the French stuff went on too long, this part of the story felt woefully underserved. Again: admirable, but not as compelling as I would have liked.
But Jon Benjamin Has A Van has really come along. It's not shy about taking jokes into uncomfortable territory, and abusing the naivete of normal people for much comic effect. (Aka, "You got burned!") There's nothing like JBHV anywhere else on TV; a lot of comparisons have been made to Tim & Eric, and I like to think of JBHV as Tim & Eric with more of a plot. I'd like to see this show come back, just to see what new outrageous lengths Benjamin will go for a laugh. But, of course, the world ended—or more accurately, this show's on Comedy Central—so we'll have to see.
- "Still using VHS, huh?"
- "You're not gonna get the end of the world right every time. Maybe the world ended a little bit each time."
- Sad we didn't get more Nathan this season. He seems like the character who's most comfortable being the punching bag.