It’s technically kind of a relief to come at “W/ Bob and David,” the four-episode sketch series featuring writer/producer/stars David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, knowing that I won’t get in trouble for mentioning “Mr. Show.” It’s a different time, a different culture and a different distribution model, here in the year 2015. Yet, without the legacy of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’ hilarious and influential sketch series, originally produced by HBO from 1995-1998, we wouldn’t be talking about these four new episodes of comedy, released today by Netflix.
So it’s something Odenkirk and Cross acknowledge in interviews, while also acknowledging they wanted the freedom to try new things. But this actually leaves reviewers in a tricky place. While being able to acknowledge that “Mr. Show” exists is fair game is extremely helpful because the structure of “W/ Bob and David” owes a great deal to that series, but that doesn’t mean the show should be seen as a direct continuation; if only because hey, maybe you never saw “Mr. Show” or, if you did, it was decades ago.
If that’s the case, you probably want to know what to expect here, with this new Netflix release. And the answer is sketch comedy, a blend of live performance and pre-taped pieces, performed by genuine pros who are operating with relatively full creative freedom. Sometimes, this can be a boon, but in the case of “Bob and David,” it’s a double-edged sword.
There’s a confidence guiding each episode that comedians with twice Odenkirk and Cross’ experience might lack, but the show lacks any of the cinematic execution that’s made recent series like “Key & Peele” and “Inside Amy Schumer” so groundbreaking. There are pacing issues that leave some sketches feeling flabby. And for those looking to Odenkirk and Cross for some truly game-changing comedy…Well, maybe instead you’re better off focusing on the fact that they’re collaborating on comedy together once again.
It’s not that “W/ Bob and David” feels safe exactly, but as welcome as it is to see seasoned professionals team up together to make with the funny, it’s hard not to mourn, just a bit, the fact that more chances could have been taken. Catching up with “Bob and David” is like catching up with an old friend — it’s great to see them again, at first, but then you find out that in 20 years time, nothing for them has ever really changed.
The best element of this first season, by far, is the way the sketches segue from one to the next. That said, with four episodes of material, the duo (accompanied by many “Mr. Show” veteran writers) manage to cover a lot of ground. And the cast — featuring both old standbys like Scott Adsit, Scott Aukerman, Dino Stamatopoulos, Brian Posehn, Jay Johnson and Paul F. Tompkins, as well as new faces including Drew Droege, Keegan-Michael Key and Arden Myrin — is as reliable as a nuclear-powered clock. Cross also performs to the peak of his abilities, but it’s worth noting that all these years Odenkirk has spent playing in premium dramas like “Breaking Bad,” “Fargo” and “Better Call Saul” have sharpened his edge. There’s a nuance and depth to his acting here, in even the most broad of sketches, that elevates things to a new plane of quality.
While this isn’t normally something we do with season reviews, in the case of “Bob & David” an episode-by-episode breakdown is not only feasible but vaguely important. Ranked from worst to best:
EPISODE 3: The episode’s major connective tissue is a riff on AOL digital profit Shingy, a ridiculous figure worthy of lampooning… though maybe not over a year after he both arose and faded from cultural memory. There’s good stuff this impersonation offers the episode. For one thing, riffing on digital buzzwords is a welcome modern touch, and the wigs donned by both Odenkirk and Cross are delightfully… well, technically, not over-the-top, because have you seen Shingy? One of the episode’s other centerpieces, a sketch entitled “Know Your Rights,” features the always delightful Keegan-Michael Key but spends way too long beating up its relatively DOA premise. It’s counterbalanced, however, by a sketch about a loudmouth (Cross) abusing the C-word in polite company, which grows and evolves in a satisfying fashion.
EPISODE 1: The various pieces of this episode — a Jewish “freelance Pope,” a courtroom judge TV show where the judge is just a little bit silly and a big-budget movie about slavery — are much stronger as links in a chain begun by a key sketch (previously released online) about a group of poker buddies announcing their New Year’s Resolutions. Also, the episode is notable for acknowledging, right at the beginning, the fact that you can’t talk about “Bob & David” without paying service to “Mr. Show” — at least, just a little bit.
EPISODE 2: Opening with a quick homage to “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” this episode features some fun mockery of Hollywood’s desperation to avoid controversy, not to mention a poke at Odenkirk and Cross’ core fanbase. There’s also maybe the best-performed live sketch of the entire series; a tight and fast tribute to the good cop/bad cop trope that — thanks to its execution — is one of the funniest of the series.
EPISODE 4: This is easily the best of the season, featuring a silly cabaret bit that leads into a sharp parody of TLC-style family reality TV, a really great sketch that addresses some big questions about heaven, and one of the season’s few really cinematic scenes, a “Glengarry Glen Ross”-esque ode to the door-to-door salesman. Most importantly, there’s a tight thematic link bringing it all together, ending the series on a stellar note.
What’s funny is that the episodes made available for review were Episodes 1 and 3, making watching the first season as a whole a delightful surprise, especially when Episode 4 proved to be the best of the bunch. It’s maybe easy to assume that after years doing other stuff, finding their groove took a little time. It’s maybe also true.
And that build over is enough to make me truly hopeful that Netflix lets Odenkirk and Cross get the gang back together for a second round. The sooner, the better.
“W/ Bob and David” Season 1 is available now on Netflix.