The Characters is the Netflix programming model in miniature. Say what you want about Netflix’s flood of original series (which have been of exceedingly variable quality) but the streaming service’s willingness to allot chunks of its seemingly bottomless resources to comedians has provided a home for original comic voices to thrive. In shows like Master Of None, Love, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp, and With Bob And David, the not-net has shown a willingness, if not outright eagerness, to simply throw a reasonable amount of money at funny people and let them do what they want. The Characters is an eight-way split of the single-series Netflix comic largess, with eight wildly different comics getting a half-hour to essentially run wild, a formula that, in the premiere, gives Lauren Lapkus an opportunity to showcase her singular talent for playing funny grotesques.
By grotesques, I’m going by the Winesburg, Ohio definition of characters deformed by their outsized obsessions rather than simply “gross and obnoxious,” but Lapkus’ creations here mostly fit into both categories. An talented and versatile comic performer and actress, Lapkus is one of those sketch comics, like a pre-Lesley Knope Amy Poehler, who never seems happier than when she can slather on the makeup, wigs, funny teeth, and strange voices and make a spectacle of herself. (Although, as her turn as too-sensitive prison guard on Orange Is The New Black shows, Lapkus is capable of more nuanced character work as well.) Indeed, Pamela, the cranked-out psycho that’s one of the many characters she plays here would be right at home beside some of Poehler’s most dangerously insane Upright Citizens Brigade characters, sharing with them a crazy-eyed scabrousness that’s vivid enough to be as frightening as she is funny.
Each episode of The Characters starts out onstage, a single, lonely microphone awaiting a performer as the camera tracks backstage to a dressing room where the episode’s performer prepares, surrounded by mannequins festooned with the costumes and props that will make up the night’s cavalcade of characters. Here, Lapkus primps herself into character as Whitney Peeps, the vapid, whine-voiced pop starlet whose Bachelorette-style celebrity dating show The Single Celeb kicks of the show and forms the connective tissue for all the Lapkus characters to come. Peeps, who’s shown up on Comedy Bang! Bang! before, is a Paris Hilton-esque caricature of unearned celebrity ego, a squeaking, creepily sexualized, fake-tanned egomaniac who can’t read, can’t sing, and whose blank-eyed, thoughtless cruelty toward her would-be suitors is part and parcel of her baffling commercial success.
Lapkus is fearlessly repellent in the role (and in a lot of her roles here), but the whole reality dating show parody thing has become as tired as those inexplicably popular shows themselves, and neither Whitney nor The Single Celeb is an inventive of insightful enough mockup to get more than cheap laughs, for the most part. (As Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya said in her pre-air review of the series, after Burning Love, any such premise would have to be exceptional, which this isn’t.) Still, as with most of her characters tonight, Lapkus manages to squeeze just the tiniest drops of humanity into Peeps to keep her from simply spiraling out into irrelevant dead-horse-beating. Singing one of her predictably awful hits, Whitney’s lyrics drop hints about the price of her insatiable, lonely fame amidst her a cappella warbling (her reps wouldn’t license the music to The Single Celeb), singing “Don’t cheat on me/ Don’t leave me behind/ Don’t sext my friends pics of your dick,” before the chorus flat-out states “I have trust issues.” And Lapkus turns Whitney’s egomania into some great physical comedy, wriggling out of her rejected suitors’ (all but one of whom are named Ben) attempts to hug her goodbye and flying into a sudden, shrieking rage when one Ben threatens to reveal her actual name on camera. (It appears to be “Barnabus Lenora Mary Kay,” improbably.) Still, despite some nice, absurdist touches (Whitney corrects the Bens that her sex tape was with the Hamburglar, not Count Chocula, the Bens reflexively bark in unison whenever a bell rings), the bit wears itself out.
Still, as a thread connecting all the episode’s characters and storylines, Whitney serves well enough. (That all of this America is seemingly glued to The Single Celeb makes about as much sense as our world’s continuing obsession with marginally less-absurd versions thereof.) When Whitney and the Bens (and creepy lone non-Ben, Kendall) wind up going to a skeezy strip club, it’s so Lapkus can introduce the episode’s weirdest and most successful sketch. As Bamanda, the world’s most spaced-out and detached stripper, Lapkus does a blank-faced, desultory half-strip (she ineptly removes her baggy overshirt) to Ben Folds’ “Brick,” only coming to life at the chorus when she suddenly mounts the lonely guy in the audience, humping over him with the mindless repetitiveness of a chihuahua while staring off into the distance with a creepy, haunted expression. As an isolated bit, it’s magic. As an extension of the episode’s running theme of lonely, desperate people failing to connect, it’s genius. (The song’s a masterful comic choice.)
Similarly, the extended story of a sad single mom (Susan Blackwell, creating a fully-rounded, non-Lapkus character) trying to juggle her search for love and her annoying preteen son, Todd (Lapkus) deals in caricature but seeds in just enough pathos to take the shrill edge off. After Whitney brings the Bens (and Kendall) to a Dave & Buster’s clone called Dick & Boners (savagely satirized in a fake commercial starring the poor soul humped by Bamanda as a place for lonely losers, and “the one place that’ll make you think you’re at the club even though you’re staring at a screen the entire time”), Todd is discovered by his mom, who’s there on a date. (That’s taking place during her lunch hour from her bus station job.) Lapkus makes Todd (touchingly awkward under his baseball cap and shaggy black haircut) a pitch-perfect portrait of kids whose rebelliousness takes the form of substituting swear words with soundalikes and daring their parents to punish them.
There’s room in Todd’s story for a lot of ancillary silliness, like the extended joke about Todd’s mom (she has no other name) waiting for the one car in the bus station’s empty lot to leave before she can ineptly park. Blackwell, complete with comically exaggerated accent (I’m going to call it Chicago-esque, in deference to Lapkus’ background, but there’s some Baltimore in there, too) makes Todd’s mom and her ill-advised search for a boyfriend (he turns out to be the cheating husband of the terrifying Pamela) improbably affecting, and Todd’s petulance equally so—it’s the sort of sketch character work that truly succeeds in finding the merest kernel of reality inside all the exaggeration. When Pamela’s husband (or Chuckie’s dad, as he prefers to be called in deference to the young son he’d brought along on his date with Todd’s mom) shows up, it’s an always-welcome Bobby Moynihan, also creating a character whose absurdly specific white trash doofus is just heartfelt enough to make Todd and Todd’s mom’s decision to give him another chance almost sweet. (Moynihan, like Blackwell, is given the spotlight by Lapkus to goof around to good effect, his over-the-counter attempt to go in for a kiss foiled by a variety of factors: “I folded my belly weird and I lost my best flop!”) Plus, Lapkus’ face when Todd is finally allowed to let loose a truly bizarre string of actual obscenities (in order to seal his acceptance of his new dad) is so brightly joyful that the moment plays out to irresistible giggles.
There are other characters along the way. Lapkus’s bus passenger from hell watches another Lapkus character on her laptop (Lapkus herself, who in this reality stars in a rom-com called The Lonely Woman). When the episode wraps up back with Whitney Peeps revealing that she must choose the three (out of four) suitors she will have sex with (sorry, Kendall), this first episode, again, sputters a bit, but The Characters provides the versatile Lapkus with the sort of free-from showcase she deserves.
- Dialogue from The Lonely Woman. Lapkus (as Lola Lonely) texts someone, “I’m so lonely.” And… scene.
- Todd’s full name is Todd Tyson Chicklet.
- Even though Pamela’s parking garage ambush is horrifying (“Get out ya’ car! You’re fucking under arrest bitch!”) Todd’s mom dutifully gets out of the car, assuming she’s an undercover cop. “It’s what Stone Phillips would do!”
- Bamela needs tips, according to the strip club deejay, because “She’s getting her jaw wired shut next week and can’t afford it.”
- Todd’s mom, explaining her black eye at work: “Oh, I walked into a door. Then I got punched in the eye.”
- Chuckie’s dad, shocked at the outcome of The Single Celeb: “She’s didn’t pick Kendall? He’s a gem!”
- Lapkus, back in the “reality” back stage at the end of the episode, is tackled out of nowhere by Pamela, who’s apparently too creepy to be contained.
- That’s episode one of The Characters, everybody. I’ll be your reviewer. Look for a review every day around this time. Next up: John Early.