Peacock’s MacGruber revival is the wrong kind of overkill

This new limited series is classic MacGruber: It stretches a 100-minute job to over three hours

Peacock’s MacGruber revival is the wrong kind of overkill
Photo: John Golden Britt/Peacock

A central joke of MacGruber, in any of its various forms, has always been that it exists at all. When the character first appeared on Saturday Night Live, the fact that anyone was making a scatological parody of MacGyver in 2007 (the original idea: a MacGyver type who insists that his friends hand him increasingly gross objects to help defuse bombs and get out of “sticky situations”) made the idea loopier and somehow more appealing.

When MacGruber became one of star Will Forte’s signature recurring pieces on SNL, it was especially funny to see each sketch end with a series of seemingly deadly explosions. And when that sketch was adapted into a movie in 2010, half the thrill came from witnessing Forte’s feature-length commitment to the bit, even (or especially) if it alienated and repulsed mainstream audiences. Now MacGruber has returned with a limited series, and the unlikeliness keeps compounding: Peacock’s MacGruber is both following up a notorious box office bomb, and doing so with more of this defiantly unlikable character than ever—its eight episodes add up to over three hours. In other words, there is suddenly an approximate 120% increase in the amount of MacGruber in the world.

This is exciting for fans of Forte’s whole deal—broadly speaking, a gonzo parody of American masculinity, revealing the grasping neediness beneath a lot of ceremonious, cliché-ridden bravado. It’s a natural, and often hilariously grotesque, progression from the work of Forte’s SNL predecessor Will Ferrell, and MacGruber has become Forte’s vehicle to explore the vast insecurities that inform our action-movie myths. The series version of MacGruber gives Forte, along with co-creators Jorma Taccone and John Solomon, plenty of time to expand on the vague Rambo spoofery of the first film.

Maybe, it pains this Forte acolyte to admit, a little too much time. Functionally, the show is a three-hour, decade-later sequel to the film, and given that Forte, Taccone, and Solomon had long discussed a sequel film, it seems pretty likely that this material was overextended from a feature idea. The first episode in particular feels like a lengthy postscript to the movie, catching the audience up on how the ending of 2010’s MacGruber has been undone—a shady sequel tactic that plays fine here, given how prone Mac is to blowing up his life, literally and figuratively. So, we learn that the hilarious overkill MacGruber dished out to his big-screen nemesis became grounds for a murder conviction, and that he’s spent most of the past decade in the slammer—but not before he attempted to pin his rap on both his partner, Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe), and his girlfriend/wife/ex-wife, Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig).

So when the government comes calling to send MacGruber on a new mission, he once again needs to win over the straitlaced Dixon and the heartbroken Vicki in order to stop a madman with a terrible weapon and a silly name; Enos Queeth (Billy Zane) subs in for Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), as top brass Barrett Fasoose (Laurence Fishburne) replaces the Powers Boothe character from the film. That’s all fine. The MacGruber character is built on repetition, with the sketch’s stock-footage explosions and rushed variations on its theme song serving as punctuation to 90-second segments that never overstay their welcome (or, at least, only overstay their welcome consciously, drawing out the urgent 10-second countdowns that MacGruber lives by). It’s only fair that the extended version would revive certain elements, too.

But those elements don’t mix quite as well over the course of a series—even one with this many laughs. The movie handled its sketch-to-screen transition by adjusting the character’s rhythms, parodying action-movie gravitas in between absurdist peaks where MacGruber (and Forte) would go spectacularly off the rails. Possibly to keep itself from burning out, the show has fewer of these peaks, especially early on. The ratio of Forte growling inane taunts to Forte engaging in panicked flailing over-favors the former, and the sheer number of times MacGruber calls someone either a condescending “bud” or a furious variation on “fucking piece of shit” grows wearisome.

The first episode, in fact, is largely stolen by Wiig and Phillippe; they’re arguably even greater assets throughout the show than they were in the movie. Wiig, whose Vicki has been abandoned by her idiot husband-to-be and is now married to Fasoose, has a blast playing a quieter form of nuttiness than Forte. Her incompetence nearly equals MacGruber’s, and also complements it; she makes a relationship that’s twisted on paper into something oddly convincing, even weirdly touching. Vicki’s dedication also inspires hilariously understated reactions of disbelief from Phillippe’s Piper, who necessarily goes bigger when responding to MacGruber’s nonsense.

It’s not as if that nonsense is in short supply. More than ever, Forte throws himself into playing MacGruber as an alternately aggressive and wounded little boy, made more explicit by bringing in his character’s father (Sam Elliott) and some tragic family backstory. There’s still plenty of room for classic Forte indulgences, like spending the entirety of the second episode fully nude. But more of those indulgences involve cartoonishly graphic violence this time around—funny, but not quite as inspired as, say, MacGruber obsessively reciting license plate number KFBR392 for future vengeance.

It’s those little moments of petty obsession that feel like missing pieces from the series, even as it expands the story well beyond the seemingly optimal 100 minutes or so. Episodes of MacGruber are individually brisk—they fly right by—yet somehow still baggy in the way that a lot of more prestigious TV projects are baggy, marrying the continuous narrative of a movie with the TV need to break things into chapters. The cliffhangers are played more or less straight; Taccone and Solomon (though they’re not the series’ only directors, they’re credited on the majority of the episodes) don’t do much to use the episode-ending cuts to black as explosion-style punchlines. Apart from some longer set pieces, Forte and company don’t take much advantage of the limited-series format.

What’s left is the inherent advantages of making MacGruber stuff at all—the delight that this character continues to exist by the sheer love of a stubborn few. The show still goofs amusingly on how the one-man-army brand of patriotism sold by so many action movies is actually just raging narcissism, and Forte remains an expert at poor attempts to disguise a tantrum as laconic cool. Fans will adopt some of the new running gags; expect a small uptick in locket sales among comedy nerds. It’s a shame, though, that this supersized version can’t sustain its satirical ambitions or its goofy emotional notes as well as, say, a longer-form Ferrell effort like Talladega Nights.

As a character and a concept, MacGruber specializes in overkill. It turns out his streaming service is on the same page, albeit for reasons more algorithmic reasons than bloodthirsty. Why shoot us with 100 minutes of content, when the job can be done with twice as much?

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