I Like to Watch

Losers on the march! FX's new comedy "Testees" makes "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" look tasteful and restrained by comparison.

Topics: I Like to Watch, Television,

I Like to Watch

TV comedies now seem to be populated solely by unapologetic, abject losers. From shows like NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office” to newer shows like CBS’s “Worst Week” and HBO’s “The Life and Times of Tim,” good guys and valiant heroes are a thing of the distant past. Instead, what we find are cowards, liars and bloviating egomaniacs who spend most of their time shirking the call of duty, avoiding major inconveniences and soothing themselves with cold beer and video games.

In other words, the small screen has become a lot more realistic in recent months. But unlike the selfish curmudgeons of “Seinfeld,” the squirmy, idealistic dreamers of “Friends” or the lazy, self-centered schleps of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the loserly nature of the losers on today’s comedies makes up the entire joke. In the worst of these shows, there aren’t strange coincidences or endlessly repeatable quips about masturbation or hilarious J. Peterman parodies along the way, as there were on “Seinfeld.” There aren’t genuine matters of the heart at stake, as there were on “Friends.” There aren’t relatable life-or-death struggles between married couples over who’ll finally unpack a suitcase as there were on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Instead, the jokes revolve around marveling at what losers these losers are.

Hey, sometimes it works. But try to imagine the characters of “Seinfeld” navigating a plot that concerns a butt suppository or a stolen crack baby. The story doesn’t progress into more and more absurd territory until it’s over the top; it starts out over the top and ends in pure farce, a sloppy mess of deadpan nastiness and manic buffoonery.

Descent of man
Which sounds pretty entertaining in theory, but in practice, we’re presented with the same hapless asshats, trying to make some quick cash by letting a man in a white coat insert a gasoline pill into their butts.

Yep, that pretty much sums up the plot of the pilot of FX’s new show, “Testees” (10:30 p.m. Thursdays), a show so strange and vile and stupid that I really wish I could strongly recommend it. Created by Kenny Hotz of the Canadian cult hit “Kenny vs. Spenny” (in which Hotz and his friend Spencer Rice compete to see who can smoke more pot or lift more weight with his penis), “Testees” has a similarly juvenile premise: Two guys without jobs, girlfriends or lives of any kind earn money by signing up to be test subjects at a local pharmaceutical testing company.

Each episode, then, focuses on a) unpleasant procedures or the administration of mysterious drugs and b) strange side effects stemming from these procedures and drugs. Hard to imagine? Well, let me break down the plot of the pilot for you so you can get a taste of the madness for yourself.

Ron (Jeff Kassel) and Peter (Steve Markle) have run out of food. They’re hungry. They need some quick money. Ron has vowed never to return to Testico, where the pair have been making cash as guinea pigs. Nonetheless, in the next scene, the two are kneeling to lick the bare feet of their former supervisor, begging for their jobs back. Welcome to the new new economy, my friends!

Next, Ron and Peter are getting something injected into their butts. Why do male comedy writers love anything involving poo, rectums or foreign objects inserted into rectums? More important, why do they assume that we’re smoking what they’re smoking? (We only wish we had the cash to finance that caliber of smokage. Or is it the more recession-friendly and budget-minded crack that comedy writers smoke these days?)

A few hours later, Peter looks pregnant, and he’s eating pickles dipped in ice cream. Peter and Ron decide that they want to keep the baby. They avoid calls from Testico, hide out in an old van and finally Peter gives birth to … a gigantic fart that leaves Ron with a nosebleed. (He’s between Peter’s legs, getting ready to deliver his baby, when the gas bomb explodes.)

See, I had trouble merely typing out the words in that last paragraph, and yet, not only did the writers of this show come up with all of that, but they stood by with smiles on their faces as a script about butt suppositories and a gigantic fart was distributed to the actors and the director and the script supervisor, and then a crew came and set up cameras and shot the whole thing. How could they not have been lighting up the whole time? I mean, how do you ask a regular, self-respecting human being to hold a boom mike while Jeff Kassel crouches between Steve Markle’s open legs, waiting for the fart fan to be turned on full blast? Is this the juvenile male idiocy of Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers trickling down to the small screen?

Luckily, despite my better judgment, I also watched the second episode of “Testees,” in which Testico dabbles in erasing memories, and Ron and Peter can’t recall who they are or really anything about their lives. Eventually the pair turn to their next-door neighbor, Nugget, who’s still angry at them for hiring a male stripper for his birthday party. He tells them that they’re a gay couple, and in fact, they just threw a party at which they performed a live sex show for their friends and family, to demonstrate their love for and commitment to each other. Ron and Peter are shocked and disgusted by this news, but they still decide to stage the live sex show a second time, hoping it will jog their memories.

Granted, this story is at least as offensive and obnoxious as giving birth to a gigantic fart. On second viewing, though, the tone of this show is so odd, the actors are so completely unusual and unsitcomy, that you can’t help embracing its scrappy sickness just a little bit in spite of yourself. Not only that, but the scene where Ron and Peter strip down to butt thongs as artsy music plays and their friends and family gape in agony? You will giggle. If you have blood flowing through your veins, you will giggle, and you’ll hate yourself for it.

Now, some have called “Testees” the “most disgusting comedy ever,” pronouncing it “puerile” and “crass” and “tasteless.” To me, nothing is more crass than the self-congratulatory nastiness of Showtime’s “Californication,” HBO’s “The Life & Times of Tim” or, in the bland sitcom vein, CBS’s “Worst Week.” Compared with the loser-guy tomfoolery on those shows, “Testees” is a blast of fresh air — however stanky and nauseating that blast might be.

Besides, when everyone is falling all over themselves to proclaim how deeply wrong a show is, it’s tough not to suspect that it has some redeeming qualities. So let’s give this smelly, twisted, gut-churning nightmare of a show a chance, what do you say?

Origin of the feces
At least now we know that the crack trade is booming during these tough economic times. Just a spoonful of crack certainly makes FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (10 p.m. Thursdays) go down in the most delightful way — or at least, it makes the show’s writers whistle while they work. How else do you explain a recent episode titled “Who Pooped the Bed?” in which Frank (Danny DeVito) and Charlie (Charlie Day) argue over who’s to blame for the excrement found at the center of their shared bed for two mornings in a row?

Yes, Frank and Charlie sleep together on a foldout couch, just the sort of detail that seems perfectly normal to die-hard fans of the show (now in its fourth season) — and believe me, they’re out there. If you were receiving an education at one of the finer universities in this great nation of ours (aka sitting on the couch smoking bong hits all day long), a sitcom about five aggressive, scheming losers who are primarily concerned with making quick cash and/or screwing each other over would be just what the doctor ordered — along with two extra-large Hawaiian pizzas.

And even though Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Mac (Rob McElhenney), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), Charlie and Frank team up to hunt and kill a homeless man or steal a crack baby or fake their own deaths or pander for the camera just for a taste of YouTube fame, they do it all with so much manic energy, style and flair that the most asinine of plots becomes unpredictable somewhere along the way. After all, these miscreants spend most of their time sitting around in the dive bar they own, swilling beer. I think they’ve considered killing each other several times now. Really, anything could happen. Will Dee succeed in having a “Sex and the City”-like night out on the town with the girls, even when one of them has a drinking problem and the other opens conversations with hot men by announcing that she’s bleached her asshole? Will Mac and Charlie manage to fake their deaths before Mac’s meth dealer father can kill them? Even the bed-pooping incident or a simple rivalry between Mac and Dennis over which of them is Charlie’s best friend is laden with unpredictable parodies and plot twists galore until the game becomes trying to figure out how it will all be resolved.

But then, maybe it’s the ludicrous dialogue that keeps this weird little ship afloat. Take this exchange among Dennis, Dee and Frank when they discover a glory hole in the bathroom at the bar:

Dee: Why would you want to have sex with someone you can’t see?”

Dennis: Well, Dee, I think the real question is, why wouldn’t you want to have sex with someone you can’t see? It’s very European. You see, Europe leads the way with sexual exploration. Quite frankly, I think it’s time we caught up.

Frank: This sounds hot! I’m gonna go get some duct tape.

Dennis: Oh, now, hold on a second, Frank. Before you go sticking anything through that hole, you might want to consider that on the other side of this wall, more often than not, there’s a dude.

Frank: But you can’t see through the wall, so how do you know it’s not a girl? You know, I could just picture a girl and then … it’s good!

Dennis: Right, well some might find that method effective. But it’s a dangerous game you’re playing, Frank.

Frank: Suppose the other guy is picturing a girl also!

Dee: How’s he gonna do that with a dick in his mouth?

Frank: I don’t know. That’s his problem.

Now, see, dialogue like that either makes you cringe or makes you chuckle softly in spite of yourself. Yes, there are always genitals and rectums in the mix, and there’s always a whiff of homophobia in the air. This is dude humor, after all. And while I may not appreciate a pilot about giving birth to a giant fart, that doesn’t mean I can turn my back on earnest enthusiasm surrounding a glory hole. I’m only human.

None of the screechy goings-on of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” really matter, of course. Do we care if the waitress Charlie’s had a crush on for years ever gives him the time of day? Do we care if Dennis tricks Mac or Mac tricks Charlie or Charlie has been tricking both of them all along? Somehow, this ridiculous show manages to entertain us without any semblance of character development or the remotest whiff of a familiar, relatable scenario. This farce wins out through sheer courage of conviction. The show’s actors (McElhenney created the show, Howerton and Day write for it, and they’re obviously a tightknit group: Day and the actress who plays “the waitress,” Mary Elizabeth Ellis, got married two years ago, and McElhenney and Olson got married last month) are seriously committed to their characters and to these unhinged stories. Through determination, they sell this show week after week. They sell it to stoners, crack smokers, losers, college students, teenagers and abnormally juvenile middle-aged people alike.

Is it a truly great show? I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s funny and unexpected and original, and that’s much, much more than you can say for 95 percent of the comedies currently on the air.

Maybe that’s a loserly way of thinking about it. What can I say? There’s a scarcity of funny shows on TV right now. Besides, maybe this is a good lesson for us, as a recession breathes down our necks like an angry, belligerent drunk: Beggars can’t be choosers, but they can be losers.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>