The premise of “No Activity” is so simple it’s dangerous. The police are stuck in an extended waiting game with a drug cartel. With the bad guys’ plan stalled, the cops have nothing to do but sit in their unmarked cruiser and keep an eye on their hideout. The two partners can only talk to each other to pass the time, and the same is true for the criminals on the inside and the dispatchers back at the station.
In other words, nothing happens. There’s literally no activity (barring the final moments of the first two episodes), and the entire comedy relies on banter between various partners to carry the show.
Improbably, it works. Buoyed by strong comedic performances from likable personalities, both new and familiar, and the sharp dialogue courtesy of series creator Trent O’Donnell and star Patrick Brammall, “No Activity” is a low-key pleasure. It goes down easy, but also earns a few hearty laughs because of the aforementioned one-two punch.
Originally made in Australia with both O’Donnell and Brammall at the helm, the series ran for two seasons before Funny or Die producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay scooped it up for this American remake. New episodes will air on CBS All Access, the broadcast network’s streaming service, as their first original comedy, and a big helping of big names have been infused. Joining Brammall (Detective Nick Cullen) in the cop car is Tim Meadows (Det. Judd Tolbeck). The two have a classic yin-yang relationship, where Tolbeck is a bit softer and ready to open up and Cullen is more sullen.
The first two criminals they’re waiting to see make a move are Marco (Jason Mantzoukas) and Angus (Jesse Plemons), who have a similar rapport. Marco is jovial and talkative, getting texts from his mom about her indoor cat who just got outside, and Angus is impatient and bossy, frustrated by their stagnation and unwilling to even feign interest in Marco’s mom’s missing cat.
Without giving anything away, events unfold that allow for additional cartel members and various other cops to pop up. Two mainstays are Janice (Amy Sedaris) and Fatima (Sunita Mani), who work the phones back at the police station and communicate information to and from the detectives, but Will Ferrell, J.K. Simmons, and Bob Odenkirk stop by in the first two episodes, while future episodes will feature the likes of Mackenzie Davis, Jake Johnson, and Michaela Watkins, among others.
There are bits that don’t work, but few back-and-forths are over-long or unfunny. Brammall and O’Donnell keep conversations tight, aside from an epic monologue from Simmons in Episode 2 that is worth highlighting all on its own. As an awkward, disliked Internal Affairs agent, Simmons hops into the detectives’ backseat for reasons best kept under wraps, but it’s safe to reveal the subject of his speech, if only to emphasize how impeccably it’s executed: He wants the boys to go deep sea fishing with him.
Now, such an out-of-left-field topic from a character who, even in his limited screentime, no one would expect to make the offer, let alone do it himself, is the kind of thing that can sink a dialogue-driven comedy. It can feel like the writers are reaching for a joke to liven up an action-less scene. Considering nearly every scene in “No Activity” is action-less, it’s exactly the trap the show needs to avoid, and it does, but not by excluding it. Instead, they embrace it, and here’s how it works.
- Simmons delivers the lengthy invitation (and its needed backstory) in the same matter-of-fact manner his character has carried all along. He infuses subtle emotional notes, getting angry and despondent within the truncated range he’s given himself, and nails the final line to really drive the whole thing home.
- Meadows and Brammall have exquisite reaction shots. They don’t try to do too much, but they’re very present in the scene, and the editing chooses specific shared glances and individual mortifications very well.
- Finally, the scene — and really the show overall — knows what it is: In the set-up, staging, and pacing, it, too, doesn’t overwork to get the laugh. There’s a trust in the words, performances, and scene construction that can be hard to establish if you’re not sure what you’re doing will be funny. Everyone here seems to know it, and they’re right.
Considering the relatively low production costs (beyond the talent) and play-like framework of the series, writers and performers will undoubtedly look at “No Activity” and think, “I can do that.” Well, you can and you can’t. Everything mentioned above should indicate the amount of hard work that went into getting these half-hour episodes to be consistently sharp and funny. It’s obviously not as easy as it looks, and everyone involved should be commended for putting in the time to get it right.
That being said, one would hope this show stokes those same creative minds to do better; to go out and shoot something; to create a short film, web series, or TV show that highlights the talent they want to highlight just like “No Activity” does for its stars. The first CBS All Access comedy may not break new ground, but it handles its simple premise with earnestness and enthusiasm. There’s something to be said for getting the basics so very right.
“No Activity” premieres Sunday, November 12 on CBS All Access.