Imagine, if you can, a time before the DVR, before Netflix, before Hulu. A time when watching TV still consisted of (shudder) flipping channels. The prospect of going back to the “is anything on?” past may provoke near-panic in viewers accustomed to watching what they want when they want it, but the sensation of keeping a finger firmly pressed to the channel changer, hunting for better entertainment prey, can be revisited in more genial surroundings with “Kroll Show,” which just wrapped its second season on Comedy Central. Nick Kroll’s series replicates the feeling of aimlessly switching from one silly program to another, boiling down familiar genres to bite-size snippets.
“Kroll Show” parodies what it loves. This is not a takedown of trash TV so much as it is a knowing celebration of dumb programming, its comedy found in the precise way it skewers TV shows by ever-so-slightly exaggerating their familiar qualities. These shows — the bickering publicists of “PubLIZity,” the excessively pampered, moderately brain-damaged “Rich Dicks” — really could be on the air. Everything looks familiar — almost too familiar. Comedy Central’s poster campaign for its shows-within-the-show almost had me checking the listings for when “Gigolo House” was set to premiere.
Kroll and his co-creators Jonathan Krisel and John Levenstein have obviously pickled themselves in television, emerging only when the tropes and lazy shortcuts of a certain brand of TV have become second nature. Krisel made his name as one of the creators of “Portlandia,” and “Kroll Show” bears a distinct resemblance to that other sketch-comedy touchstone. At its best, “Portlandia” gleefully, knowingly mocks a certain hipster-yuppie sensibility, all artisanal knots and brunch at Fisherman’s Porch. “Kroll Show” transplants that gleefully debunking sensibility to the world of television.
The opening graphics of “Kroll Show” hint at its knockoff-brand aesthetic, aping the logos for such instantly familiar television landmarks as “Miami Vice,” “Star Trek,” “Friends,” and “Game of Thrones.” But “Kroll” prefers to mock a certain brand of lowest-common-denominator programming; there are no “Mad Men” parodies to be had here. The fake shows are brilliantly insipid, the kind dreamed up at the sorts of network pitch meetings you hope are only a figment of your imagination. What if we slap together a bunch of guys with their brains in their pectorals in a McMansion and teach them how to be male prostitutes? What if two shabby-looking Upper West Side intellectuals had a show where they pranked guests by serving them overstuffed tuna sandwiches? What if two publicity divas, both named Liz, do passive-aggressive combat from across a two-sided office desk while slurping loudly on a variety of iced drinks?
“Liz, is it swimsuit season? Because you just, like, ralphed,” vapid publicity dynamo Liz G. (Kroll) asks her partner Liz B. (Jenny Slate) in one fragment from “PubLIZity” (The show is worth watching for its brilliant fake-show names alone). When Liz tells Liz she is pregnant (“the cat is pretty much out of the barn”), Liz G. squeezes her takeout iced-tea until it explodes.
Kroll is a winning performer, has an impressive iPhone contacts list, and the loyalty of many talented comedians; this season’s guest stars have included Slate, Amy Poehler, Chelsea Peretti (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), and Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project”). The entire show is a mockery of mediocre TV, with brief vignettes parodying reality shows (“Gigolo House,” where Kroll's Bobby Bottleservice learns how to service customers with panache, and “Dad Academy,” with teen-daddy doofus C-Czar being schooled in the ways of parenting by an overgrown baby), Canadian teen shows (the brilliant “Wheels, Ontario”), “Apprentice”-style competition shows (the lamentable entrepreneurs of “Signing Bonus”), and of course the hair-metal rock show “Nash Rickey's Rock N' Reunion,” with its unforgettable theme song “L.A. Deli.” One of the show’s characters is described as having “a garbage brain,” and the same might be said of all these fame-chasers, burnouts, and narcissists.
The shows occasionally seem to overlap with each other; the father of Liz’s baby is none other than the hapless C-Czar. And the stars of “Wheels, Ontario” return to serve as judges on the delightfully nonjudgmental and echt-Canadian “Show Us Your Songs Toronto,” on which everybody—no, really, everybody—is a winner.
Everyone will have their own favorites from among the regulars on “Kroll’s” dial. Mine are “Too Much Tuna,” which features Kroll and John Mulaney (“Saturday Night Live”) as the aging diner pranksters (they even prank the doctor who informs Kroll’s Gil Faison that he has mercury poisoning from eating three daily squares of tuna), and “Wheels, Ontario,” which gives Kroll the opportunity to twitch spasmodically while delivering his lines as the gormless teen idol Mikey, jerking his entire head to adjust his oh-so-floppy hair. “Canada canceled track after Ben Johnson shamed our country by cheating,” Mikey tells his new American college pal, before proceeding to thoroughly confuse the cafeteria staff by requesting “a sack of ketchup chips and a bag of homo milk.”
“Kroll Show” succeeds by taking note of the little details. Kroll is a master of vocal nuance, whether it’s the slurred vowels of the fatally entitled “Rich Dicks” (“cercaine,” “warffles”), the vocal fry of the two Lizzes, Dr. Armond’s monotone, or Gil Faison’s knowing wheeze. The silly sound effects on “House Arrest,” with murder suspect/animal plastic surgeon Dr. Armond, are the crowning touch on this nightmarish mashup of Court TV and “Pop-Up Video.” Someone has been gulping down trash-TV in doses not recommended by the surgeon general, and taking copious notes. Kroll loves all these garbage brains.
The ground, inasmuch as there is any here, comes from the brief interview snippets between Kroll and his guests and writers. We see the “real” Kroll here, loose and charming. But isn’t this — the behind-the-scenes moment, the glimpse under the show-biz mask — another TV cliché, too? There is no safe territory on “Kroll Show.” TV is everything, and everything is TV. Enjoy.