[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Watching “Astronomy Club” is a little like getting a sketch comedy syllabus. In the best possible way, a group of eight comedians manages to tick the boxes of everything you might expect from the show. Over six Netflix episodes, they fill out a collection of original songs, impressions, fake trailers, celebrity cameos, and even an absurdist spin on a holiday treat.
What ends up making these episodes really work, though, is the “reality show” framework that these are all built around. Yes, everyone is playing themselves. But even getting to know the scripted versions of Shawtane Bowen, Jonathan Braylock, Ray Cordova, Caroline Martin, Jerah Milligan, Monique Moses, Keisha Zollar, and James III help make the sketches around them a little bit sharper. It’s a shortcut to knowing when everyone is playing against type or drafting off their own insecurities or using everyone else’s assumptions to their own advantage. If the stuff surrounding it wasn’t so thoroughly entertaining, it would be enough to have that crowded house be its own show.
But another “Astronomy Club” strength is that it’s balanced. There’s a feeling that all of this writing is coming from a group with a time-tested comfort, all without having to be restricted to one particular lane. The fake game show “What You Shoulda” (hosted with perfect smiling exasperation by Martin) has a different feel than something like a sketch built around Braylock’s eerily scrunched “Resting Creep Face.” That all coexists alongside the running joke through the second episode that gives the whole group a chance to jump in on the Ice Cube gag of their choosing. (Milligan and James III’s dueling Cedric the Entertainers are definitely an added bonus.)
There’s also a strength in how the group can go an extra step. Whether it’s their take on LARPing, bra sizes, famous substitute English teachers, or roles for Black actors, they zero in on one of the most satisfying things that sketch comedy can do: surprise you with a setup and let you live inside it before pointing you in a completely different direction, all in just a handful of minutes. (M Shelly Conner’s piece for the AV Club outlines the way that “Astronomy Club,” like other Black-led sketch comedy shows before it, uses that last inversion as a way of challenging both stereotypes and expectations.)
Even the smallest-scale sketches can zoom out at any time, using a talented team of eight people to help make an idea go bigger. The “Shade Off” that made it to the Netflix show draws from a pair of spiritual predecessors that the group made as part of a digital series for Comedy Central. Each of them benefits from being able to have multiple people who can throw curveballs into what’s happening, sometimes with only a word or two or even a simple glance. With the group writing and performing their own material, “Astronomy Club” plays to members’ individual strengths and avoids having to tackle a simple premise in only one way.
That they never had the chance to build on this solid foundation remains one of the more baffling recent Netflix programming choices. (Last summer, Zollar, Braylock, and Moses spoke about the platform’s decision not to renew the show.) Even for a show that arrived fully ready to flip the sketch show playbook, it’s hard not to feel like they were all ready for so much more.
Pair It With: James III, Braylock, and Milligan host the podcast “Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood,” which looks at individual films with an eye toward how they shifted on-screen representation and opportunities for Black creators. Along with the occasional guest, these three bring the same easy chemistry they have in front of the camera while also talking honestly about their own industry experiences. Awards time is always a good time to tune into “BMCJIH,” so as fall films start to make their way to audiences, last year’s episodes on “Soul” and “One Night in Miami” are good examples of how these discussions can be funny and frank at the same time.