I Like to Watch

The scrappy rockers of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" are back, while A&E also tries its hand at comedy with Patrick Swayze in "The Beast."

Published January 25, 2009 12:34PM (EST)

I was watching the inauguration on Tuesday, filled with hope and loving my country and Obama and Denzel Washington and Smokey Robinson and everyone else in the crowd, when a startling thought occurred to me: Does this mean "we are the world" again? Because that suggests that we're going to have to feed the world to let them know it's Christmas time, and I don't think I have to tell you how expensive that can get.

It's almost as expensive as teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony, which we're also going to have to work into our ballooning federal budget. Living in a land where the river runs free sounds great, sure, but don't forget, that land is also a place where you and me are free to be you and me. I'm OK with me, of course, but I've never been completely comfortable with you. Are you still collecting Nazi memorabilia in your basement? Did your little phase experimenting with plastic explosives ever pass?

Still, it'll be nice to have some people in Washington who actually believe that it's a small world after all. Unfortunately, these types also have a frustrating tendency to interrupt crucial policy meetings to pose such unfocused inquiries as "How many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand?" And when pressed to determine where we'll come up with the billions of dollars we'll need to put an immediate ban on the production of cannon balls, they tend to answer with vagaries like, "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind." Such talk doesn't always go over too well in the halls of government.

And I don't think I have to remind anyone how inconvenient and unsettling it can be to give peace a chance. Just look at the situation in Gaza: You give peace a chance, peace elects Hamas, and you're rolling out heavy munitions and invoking the world's wrath before you know it.

Fight or "Flight of the Conchords"?

If you don't believe me, just ask those zany indie rockers from New Zealand, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, who not only recognize the burgeoning threat of evil robots, but also document how thoughtfully snacking on a kebab with a hot girl you met at a party can escalate, before you know it, into dating a part-time model.

The second season of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" (10 p.m. Sundays) offers another wave of quirky hilarity of the very highest caliber, from Bret pawning his guitar to pay the rent, then mimicking guitar-playing while humming his part onstage, to Jemaine looking to supplement the duo's income with a little freelance prostitution. While most so-called quirky hilarity tends to be chafingly quirky and not all that hilarious, this show's tone and pace are so odd and deadpan that even the most absurd pranks work.

The first three episodes of the second season entertain from start to finish, starting off with last week's excellent premiere, in which Jemaine and Bret agree to write a jingle for a new brand of women's toothpaste, then end up discussing what women like and don't like.

Jemaine: What do women like?

Bret: Men?

Jemaine: Some of them do. (Singing) Some women like men, some are les-bi-an. Femident toothpaste!

Bret: That's almost half. That's half of it.

After an argument over whether or not weaving is something women love or "a man's game" as Bret asserts, the two appear as tubes of toothpaste and sing their jingle ("You have breasts and longish hair!"). Ah, selling out, the great uniter.

Naturally Murray (Rhys Darby) has fallen from the heights he reached at the end of the first season, when his other band, Crazy Dogggz, hit No. 1 with the song "Doggy Bounce." Murray is appalled to discover that "Doggy Bounce" was poached from a Polish band who scored with it 13 years earlier. After being sued and fired, Murray ends up sleeping in his car, then goes crawling back to the New Zealand consulate, only to find that no one read his resignation letter or even noticed that he was gone at all. It's a testament to this show's cleverness that Murray's bizarre antics are just as amusing as Bret and Jemaine's.

Of course Kristen Schaal is brilliant, as always, as the band's one rabid, obsessed fan. A scene from the second episode, in which she pays Bret for a halfhearted massage, reaches a level of absurdity that calls to mind Peter Sellers watching TV while Shirley MacLaine's character, Eve, comes on to him in "Being There." ("Should I lay down? Maybe I should take off some clothes?" Mel asks breathlessly.)

The songs in these episodes don't reach the lofty heights of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room" or "The Humans Are Dead," but that makes sense, since McKenzie and Clement, who also write the show, have exhausted their original catalog of songs, leaving them to write all new material for each episode. Whatever they might be missing in clever lyrics, though, they make up for with some great group dance numbers this season, from the hip-hop tribute "Sugar Lumps" ("My sugar lumps are two of a kind! Sweet and white and highly refined!) to the "West Side Story"-like gang standoff hit, "Stay Cool, Murray!"

Just think, 10 years ago Tenacious D had their own show on HBO, and here are Jack Black and Kyle Gass' two scrappy yet deserving heirs, bringing HBO its one worthwhile comedy yet again.

The more things change, the more they stay the same -- but don't tell that to the new residents on Pennsylvania Avenue.

 More roast beast, please!

Those impatient with the status quo will at least be pleased to find a brand-new source of comedy from A&E's "The Beast" (10 p.m. Thursdays). This spot-on parody of a procedural drama will have viewers rolling on the floor laughing in no time, from its wildly unrealistic plotlines to the self-serious, melodramatic dialogue that spews forth from the stars' mouths at every turn.

Talk about deadpan! You wouldn't know that Patrick Swayze and Travis Kimmel, the Australian underwear-model-turned-actor who plays his rookie sidekick, are in on the joke at all, with the way they glower and glare through the first two episodes. In fact, every single scene featuring renegade FBI agent Charles Barker (Swayze) and newbie underling Ellis Dove (Kimmel) is a real swaggerfest:

"Is this another test?" "Not if you know the answer."

"Do not go through the Chicago police. Find another way!"

"Who can you trust? You can trust your damn case file, and you can trust me!"

You get the idea. Of course, my favorite scenes are the Quentin Tarantino film parodies, where the camera circles while everyone points guns at each other's heads. Then Barker turns and shoots Dove, but only to save him from being shot by the other guys, get it? His stupidity almost got them both killed back there!

I also love the way Barker throws his weight around, an obvious tribute to Vic Mackey of "The Shield." But even Mackey, a character known for his bravado and his foul mouth and his lack of subtlety, would have chosen a more nuanced way to threaten an incarcerated informant than Barker does when he hisses, "The witness protection program is my bitch!" Apparently Barker's job would be a serious bitch, if the whole world weren't his bitch.

With so many one-liners and sight gags in the mix, be sure not to miss the underlying send-up of the illogical nature of most faux-noir drama plots. How about the scene where Dove smokes crack with a lunatic drug dealer, presumably to earn his trust, only to turn into a crack-addled lunatic himself? And what does Barker do when he wants to cover up the death of a longtime informant (and personal friend! Barker may be ruthless, but he's also down with the streets, yo!)? He torches her apartment, of course. Hmm. I wonder if any little kids live in that building?

Of course, that's just the sort of reckless, no-worries storytelling that "The Beast" offers to its target demographic, a heady mix of bored viewers looking for the freshest parody to hit the small screen in years and very dumb teenagers who've memorized every line from "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction." By the time the lunatic drug dealer shows up at the end of the pilot, with a bunch of other minor characters from that episode, to inform Dove that the FBI is investigating Barker for corruption and they want to enlist Dove's help (by smoking crack with him, for one thing), you'll either be chuckling softly and shaking your head in disbelief or saying, "Whoa, I didn't see that one coming, dude!"

But even if the world is only filled with two kinds of people -- smart, easily bored people and dumb, easily amused people -- at least that means it really is a small world after all. So let the joyful singing and hand-holding with all the adorable peoples of the globe begin! (Just don't forget the antibacterial wipes.)

Next week: Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse," Ted Haggard and a barrelful of angry housewives. Oh my!

By Heather Havrilesky

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.

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