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Before ‘The Afterparty,’ ‘Champaign Ill’ Helped Prove Sam Richardson Was Worth Building a Show Around

Fictional dead superstar musicians? Complicated romantic entanglements? Both shows have them all.

"Champaign ILL" Season 1 Adam Pally Sam Richardson

Adam Pally and Sam Richardson in “Champaign ILL”

Mark Hill/YouTube Premium/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

Welcome to Recommendation Machine, your daily IndieWire destination for TV suggestions of what to watch. Each weekday, we’ll offer up a series we think should be on your viewing radar. Though most of the shows included here are recent offerings from networks and streaming services, this will also be a place to take a look at different chapters in TV history readily available for anyone looking to immerse themselves in an ever-expanding medium.

As everyone with even a passing connection to TV will have happily told you for the better part of the last decade, there are too many shows. They’ll use words like cornucopia or plethora or deluge or glut. Bottom line: There are plenty of options for things to queue up next. So, while we’ll try to provide as many of those as we can from streaming’s heavy hitters like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max, there will also be plenty of chances to highlight the best shows on lesser-known services —  hidden gems to try out during one of those free trials you haven’t used up yet. International shows, docuseries, some projects that, at first glance, might not even seem like TV: They’re all up for grabs. 

In every installment, we’ll not only make a case for the show itself, but pick out some particular elements that make the whole thing worth a try. And for those who may have already taken the plunge on that day’s pick, we’ll also try to throw in some next-step ideas for something similar. Along the way, we may even toss in some suggestions for an album or a book or a movie. There’s no telling what the Recommendation Machine might manage to turn out next!

All past Recommendation Machine installments will be carefully housed here, for your bookmark and perusal needs. For now, here’s our choice for today’s show that’s very much worth your TV-watching energy:

“Champaign ILL”

Where to Watch ‘Champaign ILL’: Hulu and YouTube

Part of the fun of seeing Sam Richardson pop up in something is not knowing what’s coming.

He’s a consistent presence on screen without being restricted to a small bag of tricks. You can get the fast-talking confidence of his “Veep” character Richard Splett, the unreserved sincere goofiness of his Tim Robinson collaborations, or the action movie bona fides he showed off in “The Tomorrow War.” In some ways, the new Apple TV+ show “The Afterparty” is an ideal distillation of all those, giving him the opportunity to be the flexible throughline for all the mayhem happening around him.

Another show that slots right into that same mold is “Champaign ILL,” a show that was part of YouTube’s not-so-distant attempt to build out a network-style library of scripted series. Now available for rediscovery on Hulu, it’s a comedy with a simple setup: Two pals have to reassemble their lives when their rap superstar best friend dies in a sudden (and gruesome) accident. Richardson and Adam Pally spend the opening chapters of the series playing the lifestyle whiplash of Alf and Ronnie, who downshift from luxury jet setters to broke suburban burnouts.

The first episode is a showcase for both of them, especially as they rattle through the matter-of-fact nature of the entourage lives that have suddenly disappeared. They both start the show like the “after” sections of a movie where a kid transforms into an adult overnight and has to take on a bunch of responsibilities. Ronnie and Alf immediately arrive as characters shielded from any kind of hardship and they come across as friends who’ve latched onto a carefree codependent set of expectations, even though each of them have something different simmering underneath. Pally brings a sense of mischief that’s there in all his most memorable comedy roles (especially this one), while Richardson really makes Alf feel like a wayward guy who could get back his long-ditched charm if he learns from enough people finally telling him “no.”

It’s not that “Champaign ILL” doesn’t try to build a narrative structure around Alf and Ronnie (there are some gigantic story swings in the beginning of the season), but there’s something of an unspoken acknowledgment that its time is best spent giving Richardson and Pally some runway and letting them take off at their own chosen speeds. (Each episode’s end credits outtakes reinforce the idea that plenty of their scenes could have gone in significantly different directions.)

Back when the show came out, Richardson told IndieWire’s Ben Travers about how it lined up with his career. “Given the opportunity, I’d like to do some more solo stuff or antagonistic stuff. However, I also feel that antagonism and cynicism are so common and rampant, and I don’t like to have that [in my life]. Like even on ‘Veep,’ my character is the least cynical person in that universe. ‘Detroiters,’ we are not cynical. And ‘Champaign ILL,’ these guys [can be] jerks, but they’re really not cynical,” he said.

And you can see that when Alf is responding in those few seconds after the accident that jump-starts the series. With a careful dial turn, that same shouting at Scrooge on “I Think You Should Leave” can pack a genuine emotional punch when put to a different use. Rather than Alf being a perpetual, petulant man-baby, there’s some vulnerability and fear being cloaked by all the designer clothes he hasn’t sold yet. As with “The Afterparty,” “Champaign ILL” has Richardson playing someone who’s capable of doing the right thing for the wrong reason and the wrong thing for the right reason. Him being able to embody people who can do both is key to what makes any of these projects work — getting to see it under a spotlight makes it even stronger.

Missed any other outputs from Recommendation Machine? You can read every past version here

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