Few works of pop culture have a higher barrier to entry than “On Cinema at the Cinema,” but even fewer are as rewarding to new viewers willing to invest countless hours of their lives. Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s longtime Adult Swim series is ostensibly a parody of syndicated movie review shows like “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies,” with the entirety of each episode taking place on a chintzy talk show set. But over the course of 12 seasons and countless spinoffs, it has evolved into something much, much weirder.
Each episode features Heidecker and Turkington hosting their own public access show about movies, with the two men reviewing films they clearly haven’t seen (a running gag is that every single film receives a perfect “five bags of popcorn” rating). But the real action begins when the reviews end, as they frequently devote a majority of their airtime to discussing the horrid lives of the two hosts and their coterie of misfit crew members.
At its core, “On Cinema” is a window into the lives of two of the most twisted, pathetic characters anyone could imagine (Heidecker and Turkington use their real names, but that’s where the similarities end). Heidecker plays a Trump-loving narcissist who thinks he can succeed at anything, frequently hijacking the show to promote his failing music, business, and political careers. Turkington is just as worthless, portraying a self-proclaimed “movie expert” who spends most of his life passive-aggressively sniping at anyone in his vicinity. Through their conversations about movies (and frequent tangents), viewers have become privy to the characters’ health scares, legal troubles, financial woes, and other misfortunes that often conjure the image of Sophocles working in the “Fernwood Tonight” writers room.
And with a list of spinoffs that grows by the minute, the show has gradually morphed into a sprawling, needlessly complex fictional universe. In addition to the flagship show, the “On Cinema” universe has produced six seasons of “Decker,” a deliberately terrible spy series written and directed by the fictionalized version of Heidecker; “The Trial of Tim Heidecker,” a four-hour extravaganza that sees Heidecker on trial for poisoning 19 teenagers with counterfeit vape pens at an ill-fated music festival; “Mr. America,” a feature-length mockumentary about Heidecker running for political office following his trial; a dozen four-hour Oscar specials that frequently result in serious injury or death; and more short-form online content about the various misfits and ne’er-do-wells who hang around Tim and Gregg.
For years, all of this content was produced by Adult Swim, the home of Heidecker’s popular “Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job” and his many other side projects. But when support from the network dried up in 2020, Heidecker and Turkington struck out on their own and launched HEI Network, a new streaming service designed exclusively to produce and distribute “On Cinema” content. They brilliantly combined art and commerce by having the fictional Tim Heidecker launch his own streaming service within the universe of the show, turning their distribution model into the subject of endless punchlines.
The elaborate meta joke is very on-brand, but HEI Network is also a bold experiment that could have real implications for independent artists seeking new production and distribution models. By eliminating the middleman, Heidecker and Turkington can produce as much “On Cinema” content as fans are willing to pay for.
“It’s great because we no longer have to hold out our hats and beg,” Turkington said while speaking to IndieWire from Australia. “However much money comes in, that’s how much we get to spend making shows. It’s so much simpler.”
Though they haven’t released numbers, both Heidecker and Turkington say that HEI Network has exceeded financial expectations since it launched last year. That success is a testament to the passionate “On Cinema” fan base, who passionately sort themselves into “TimHeads” and “GreggHeads” and use their social media accounts to pour gasoline on various feuds between the two characters. Their direct financial support allows Heidecker and Turkington to continue producing the show without fearing cancellation from Adult Swim, and any extra money is used to produce spinoffs that flesh out the sprawling, fucked-up universe that is “On Cinema at the Cinema.”
The latest addition to the elaborate mythology is “Deck of Cards,” a new film that was written and directed by Turkington’s in-universe alter ego. The project attempts to craft a “Game of Thrones” style fantasy epic based on the characters from playing cards (with the budget of a freshman student film, of course). Gregg’s disastrous attempts to exploit public domain IP have been a running gag on the show for years (he got caught selling illegal copies of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” because he erroneously believed that, since the 1937 film entered the public domain, all subsequent remakes had as well). But “Deck of Cards” promises to be a creative low point even for him.
The film, which begins streaming on HEI Network this week and will inevitably be a topic of conversation on the upcoming Season 13 of “On Cinema,” promises to scrape the absolute bottom of the barrel when it comes to quality. Atrocious production value has become an essential motif in the “On Cinema” universe, and fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Turkington explained that the idea to make a movie about playing cards sprung from a joke about John Huston’s 1966 film “The Bible: In the Beginning.”
“I remember thinking, how arrogant do you have to be to think you can condense something as massive as the Bible into one movie,” he said. “And then we started imagining a project of that scope being taken on by the least competent crew on the planet.”
That crew includes Turkington and Heidecker as well as Joe Estevez and Mark Proksch, who both play pathetic fictional versions of themselves (Estevez is a washed-up actor who will do anything for a gig, and Proksch is a terrible celebrity impersonator who was never the same after emerging from a coma). Their collective talents (for lack of a better word) combined to make “Deck of Cards.” The real-life Turkington instructed his design team to refer to “Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy,” a 1976 pornographic musical that traumatized him as a child, which led the film to adopt a vomit-tinged color palette that makes the green screen-heavy episodes of “Decker” look like “Avatar” by comparison.
With films like “Deck of Cards,” Turkington and Heidecker have essentially closed their own loop of self-contained meta humor. Characters make shitty movies that they can then review on their own movie review show, which streams on a website that the fictional hosts of the show created. When you combine that with its self-sustaining business model, it seems like “On Cinema” could run forever, using that loose structure as a vessel for whatever strange idea pops into its creators’ heads.
The two comics say that they’ll keep making the show for as long as fans pay and they both find it fun, which theoretically leaves the door open to decades of additional content. At this point, it’s less of a show and more of an elaborate alternate reality that has taken on a life of its own. It’s hard to imagine the formula ever running out of steam, as the true brilliance of “On Cinema” lies in the simple, airtight premise of its fake talk show: One host wants to talk about anything other than movies, yet the other is incapable of discussing anything else.
Most seasons center around Heidecker promoting a new scam such as his rock band Dekkar, his movie theater company Six Bag Cinema, or his Electric Sun Desert Music Festival. As each season progresses, Tim’s latest obsession begins to take up more of his attention, which causes Gregg to passive-aggressively seethe about the lost time that he could be using to discuss his knowledge of terrible ’90s movies. That tension gradually builds over the course of each season until both characters reach a breaking point, which usually leads to someone being injured or killed and Gregg’s prized VHS collection being destroyed.
That repetition gives “On Cinema” a licorice-like quality: not everyone likes it, but those who do tend to get obsessed. The cycle of stupidity that brings these two morons asymptotically closer to financial ruin each season is hilarious because it’s so predictable. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that each of Tim’s businesses are doomed to fail, or that Gregg will never be able to keep his VHS collection safe from Tim. As long as they’re associated with each other, their lives are going to get worse.
That simplicity is underscored by a darkness, as the satirical show mirrors our narcissistic, media-obsessed culture a little more with each passing year. Tim’s countless get-poor-quick schemes are hilarious because they’re supported by the tragic idea that nobody has ever told this talentless hack that he’s precisely that. And each season, Gregg’s already brief list of reasons to continue living gets shorter and shorter. Justifying one’s own existence with nothing but a collection of VHS tapes is never an easy task, but it’s made all the harder when one’s tape collection seems to be destroyed every year. Armed with nothing but a spotty knowledge of movie running times, this poor sap has essentially damned himself to an existence of the most pathetic fandom imaginable through nothing but his own terrible choices.
Yet that will never change because the prospect of sacrificing even a shred of fame is incomprehensible to them. Tim needs Gregg to lend legitimacy to his fraudulent business endeavors as much as Gregg needs Tim’s show to prove that his movie “knowledge” is something more than the ravings of a madman. In a world that increasingly measures success by the size of one’s platform, “On Cinema” tells the story of two sad men who will do anything to cling to one that they never deserved in the first place.
“These are two people who really should not be around each other,” Turkington said with a laugh. “But you know it’s always going to end up that way.”
“Deck of Cards” begins streaming on HEI Network on Friday, September 2.