Drunk History’s fourth season begins with stories of escape. Duncan Trussell tells the tale of Timothy Leary, the professor and psychologist known for experimenting with LSD who broke out of prison. Steve Berg retells a rather convoluted story about an escape from Devil’s Island. And Doug Jones explains how the chief baker aboard the Titanic survived a sinking ship with the help of whiskey. Despite the fact that Trussel and Berg are returning retellers—or perhaps because of it—there’s a strange flatness to the season premiere. It checks off some of the boxes that make Drunk History the odd sensation that it is. Narrators get excited about history to the point of delirium. Intentionally low-budget video effects build a nonetheless immersive diorama for the stories to live in. Hiccups from reality get folded into the world of reenactment. There’s nothing particularly out of place in “Great Escapes,” but it chugs along with a mechanic monotony. Instead of finding that strange balance of controlled chaos, the season four premiere just feels controlled.
It’s far too early in the season to question whether Drunk History has lost its edge with any real conviction. Based on the trailer for season four alone, I think it’s pretty safe to conclude that more exciting times are nigh. But “Great Escapes” certainly does not live up to its invigorating title. Drunk History is so sure of itself that it’s getting harder for the show to surprise. Drunk History shouldn’t fuck with its formula for the sake of keeping things fresh. The formula works. Derek Waters is still the master Drunk Whisperer, able to pull natural humor out of his narrators while keeping them on track. But there’s still room for Drunk History to push the boundaries of its own conceit.
And that really comes down to the stories. Sure, narrators vary in how entertaining they are. Jones is a little too amused by himself to make the third segment of the premiere funny. Berg and Trussell are the veterans, so even in their inebriated states, they know what works in terms of retelling a story in a way that’s funny and engaging without trying too hard. But it’s really the story and not who’s telling it that can make or break a Drunk History segment. And the stories that make up “Great Escapes” are just okay.
Timothy Leary was no doubt a fascinating historical figure, and Thomas Lennon gives a solid performance, as he usually does. But the story of his escape from prison is weirdly lackluster. Even as Trussell shouts “This is Galileo! This is one of the smartest people that ever lived” about Leary, the stakes never match his enthusiasm. Some of the more intriguing parts of the story, like the role of the Weather Underground, go under-explored. It’s likely Drunk History viewers know much less about this radical leftist organization that was responsible for many more jailbreaks throughout the 1970s than they do about Leary, but they’re merely small players in the story. Drunk History often digs deeper into the stories it tells in order to unearth some of the lesser known people and details at play that don’t always make it into the textbooks, but they missed an easy opportunity to do so here.
But at least Leary’s escape has a clear arc to it. The second story of the night is all over the place. Because of their compact nature, Drunk History stories often have to be distilled into their most salient points. The team of researchers the show employs are quite adept at determining those salient points, and the narrators typically bring their own layers to the story after doing some homework. But the story of William Willis saving Bernard Carnot lacks coherence. It jumps all over without a strong sense of character or place. So it’s not Berg’s hiccups that make the story hard to follow; it’s the story itself, which seems like it was scraped from the bottom of the escape story barrell. That could have been a good thing, had the story spotlighted a more compelling character. But a white dude who dreams of being heralded as a literary hero? History highlights plenty of those. As with the Leary story, it’s about seeking justice, but it similarly skims over its most interesting parts.
The best aspect of the story—and arguably of the whole episode—is the anecdote about the blue butterflies. It’s weird an inconsequential to the plot, but it’s one of the rare moments of the episode that really breaks the mold, along with Trussell’s nonsensical but very passionately delivered mini-monologue at the end of his segment about how it’s not illegal to be smart and Berg’s singalong session with Waters on the piano. Those brief moments inject the episode with some much needed fun, but they aren’t quite enough, especially with that second story bogging down the middle of the episode.
Things get slightly back on track for the final segment, even though Jones wasn’t a very memorable narrator. But he starts out on a high note with that pie vs. cake game that provides excellent material for the reenactment. That bit is genuinely funny, as is the moment when he accidentally blows air into his whiskey from laughter, which gets woven into the reenactment perfectly since it’s a story about whiskey. Charles Joughin’s survival is also just an interesting story in and of itself—one that isn’t that well known despite the fact that it’s part of the most famous sunken ship story in history.
The premiere emphatically reiterates that the energy and structural makeup of the stories significantly inform the vibe of the episode as a whole. The stories in “Great Escapes” lack dynamics and compelling characters, so the episode never really comes to life except in brief sputtering spurts. Let’s hope it’s just a hiccup on the way to something better.
- That Nixon nose prosthetic though.
- Thomas Middleditch is one of the best reenactors this show uses. He wraps his mouth perfectly around the words of others, and his physical comedy always shines.
- Ron Funches is another valuable player of the episode, even though he too is stuck in the poorly constructed story.
- At the top of the episode, Waters dryly asks Trussell how much acid costs, and Trussell rolls up his sweatshirt to reveal a t-shirt that says “FREE ACID.” Trussell remains unwaveringly true to his brand.
- Making a stupid dick joke and being aware of the fact that it’s a stupid dick joke doesn’t make it any less stupid. I just wasn’t very amused by Jones’s intentionally dumb jokes, including the credits scene.
- “Yesterday I was baking pies in an oven, today I am in an oven, and I am a pie!”