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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The promising Garfunkel And Oates struggles to find itself on TV

Illustration for article titled The promising Garfunkel And Oates struggles to find itself on TV

Garfunkel And Oates has been a long time coming. In the time since musician-comedians Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci uploaded a video of themselves strumming an adorable yet raunchy tune to YouTube six years ago, they’ve gone on tours, played The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, shot a pilot with HBO, and now, found a home for a series on IFC. The channel has been making a concerted effort to brand itself as the place for “alternative comedy,” with a strong lineup that includes sketch shows Portlandia and The Birthday Boys, as well as pseudo-talk show Comedy Bang! Bang! But Garfunkel And Oates is far more straightforward than its absurdist neighbors.

In order to expand the original YouTube videos into a full half-hour of television, the show opts to follow semi-fictionalized versions of Lindhome and Micucci as they navigate the Los Angeles comedy scene. The first couple of episodes screened to critics sprinkle clever send-ups of Los Angeles culture throughout, like when they imagine their agent “Boomer” as a literal corporate puppet that idly bangs on keyboards with his flat felt hands as brash comedian Rob Huebel voices his empty enthusiasm. Lindhome and Micucci play sets at local club “Supermelt,” a clear homage to the Nerdmelt stand-up series. We later see them crushed when their doppelganger rivals are invited onto Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast, because yes, getting on a podcast is a true marker of success in the eyes of the Los Angeles comedic elite. The series then details how mishaps both professional and personal inspire their songs, like the ode to breaking up a casual relationship by “texting yourself out of their lives” (in Garfunkel And Oates-speak, “The Fadeaway”).

There’s no doubt that Garfunkel And Oates will draw comparisons to HBO’s Flight Of The Conchords, which also followed the daily lives of a comedic musical duo as they tried to make it big. And yes, both shows feature hapless heroes and smash cuts to surrealist musical interruptions. While Flight Of The Conchords took pride in maintaining a quizzical distance from the audience, Garfunkel And Oates tries to bring us right into Lindhome and Micucci’s world alongside them, with mixed results.

Now, the instinct to keep Lindhome and Micucci relatable is a good one. Their most successful songs are the ones that make people go, “that is so true.” Some of their earlier hits include “Pregnant Woman Are Smug” and the pithy “Present Face,” which pokes fun at the insincere face people can’t help but make when they get a disappointing present. Keeping their series grounded in some reality makes sense for their brand. The problem that Garfunkel And Oates runs into, though, is that it splits their particular brand of quirky and naughty evenly between the two characters. Tall blonde Lindhome takes the naughty side as she stumbles her way into screwball sex with a cocky fellow comic (a well-deployed Anthony Jeselnik). Elsewhere, the chirpy Micucci bumbles her way through a “hot slut” audition meant for tall, blonde Riki, and later has fantasies about an animated world populated by nothing but anthropomorphic apples. These versions of Lindhome and Micucci are so disparate that it makes it hard to get invested in either one. It doesn’t help that the many comedian cameos often outshine the main action at hand, as with the perfectly smarmy Jeselnik, a vampy Natasha Leggero, and dry executive Tig Notaro. It’s also hard to understand exactly how successful Lindhome and Micucci are supposed to be within this world, where they have to play soulless corporate gigs while the porn version of their band racks up one hundred million views on YouTube. (It also must be said that “the porn version” joke has been made several thousand times over, and “Garfinger And Butts” don’t do much to flip that well-established script.)

Strangely enough, though, the least successful parts of the episodes screened for critics are exactly why the show came into being. The music-video interludes just don’t have a good place in this series yet. Their Microsoft Powerpoint aesthetic works less on a television screen than it did on YouTube, and the cheeky yet cutting songs start to blend together into one mass of strumming ukulele. For this reason, the most successful song by far is the one they play perfectly straight. Lindhome and Micucci’s loving ode to a gay puppet couple—a stand-in for Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie—makes up for its lack of cheek with heart. The accompanying visuals are entirely made of felt, just like the puppets it’s serenading, and it’s charming. Still, it points out the fact that the show has a bit of an identity crisis. Garfunkel And Oates can’t decide in which direction to go—naughty or nice—so it spends most of its time vacillating wildly between the two in hopes that there are enough good moments to sustain it. The frustrating thing is, Garfunkel and Oates as a pair was successful because it never chose between naughty and nice. They found a way to marry the innate cuteness of their wide-eyed unison singing with frank lyrics to hilarious effect. When the show figures out how to do the same, it will be a force to be reckoned with, but as it stands now, it’s more confused than anything else.