Friday, July 06, 2007

TV REVIEW: Flight of the Conchords

Imagine the 1960s hit TV series The Monkees - only with a lower (much lower…) IQ and deadpan dialogue-delivery - and you can begin to conceive of the hilarious new Flight of The Conchords, a summer comedy series from HBO which in its ingenuity and numerous laughs almost makes up for the horror that was last year’s travesty, Lucky Louie. Almost...

In Flight of the Conchords, two very-low key band mates and dolts from New Zealand, Jemaine (Jemaine Clement) and Bret (Bret McKenzie) attempt to make it big in America, particularly the New York City music scene.

They are aided - or perhaps hindered - in their professional endeavors by a daft agent who insists on calling attendance at their three-person band meetings, fellow New Zealander and paranoiac, Murray (Rhys Darby).

The band – the so-called Flight of the Conchords – also boasts a rabid “fan base,” or more accurately, a rabid fan: the looney-tunes, crazy-eyed stalker named Mel (Kristen Schaal). Mel hangs around outside Jemaine and Bret’s apartment at odd hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of her favorite stars. She even attended one of their gigs that got canceled (at the Aquarium, of all places). But what makes Mel even funnier – outside her constant attempts to have sex with the boys – is the fact that she’s married and well into her thirties and that she drags her clueless (or perhaps merely uninterested) husband on the stalking field trips.

Remember how on that cult-classic The Monkees, audiences would follow the band around on its daily life travails, as well as gigs, and how each episode featured a clever, often avant-garde music video? That is essentially the structure for Flight of The Conchords as well. Only here the boys are not particularly talented or handsome or intelligent or quick-witted. Also, they live in near-squalor and hang literally on the edge of poverty. In one episode, their only meal comes from Bret’s dumpster diving.

In addition, the music videos found in this series are as stylish and ridiculous as anything featured on The Monkees forty years ago. But now - in a splendid subtextual comment on the times we live in - they are not forward-looking, but backwards gazing, essentially pastiches of different established “pop” forms. In one episode, “Mugged,” the boys go hip-hop with predictably silly results. Jemaine’s hip-hop name is “Hip-hop-o-potamus” while Bret goes by the handle “Rhymenoceros.” Bret ends up rapping about his Nana’s tea parties (?) and Jemaine gets tongue-tied and simply makes incoherent sounds till it is Bret's turn to sing again.

It is during these inventive music video segments – and there are two such sequences per thirty minute episode – that this comedy series truly comes to vivid and hysterical life. In the premiere episode, “Sally,” for instance, Jemaine attempts to woo a pretty girl at a friend’s party (the aforementioned Sally) with his bizarre dance moves and unintentionally stupid vocals. Because Jemaine is an idiot, his “love song” lyrics include such non-compliments as “you could be a part-time model” (just don’t give up your normal job…) and “you could be a high class prostitute.”

The second music video in the same episode, which frankly had me on the floor, is a futuristic techno-Devo piece concerning malevolent robots who have murdered the human race. Sung in mechanical “robot” style by the deadpan boys, the lyrics suggest the far future date of the “year 2000” and a robot revolution in the “mid nineties.” The song posits a “binary solo” using only zeroes and ones, and then suggests that in the future there will be only one kind of robot dance.

Well, two, if you don’t forget the “robo-boogie.” I must also mention that this very funny composition is sung in complete robot regalia (down to robot nipples) and recorded for the band's music video using...a cell phone camera.

In the second episode, “Bret Gives Up The Dream” there’s a spot-on accurate satire of 1980s pop music entitled “Inner City Pressure” that finds Jemaine and Bret lamenting their economic woes while soulfully pacing an urban setting. This segment features typical 1980s music video gags like breaking the fourth-wall, time-lapse photography, transparent singers and the like. Best of all, it makes heavy use of a synthesizer.

Yet it isn’t just the stylistics that make these moments very funny, it is surely those ridiculous and stupid lyrics. In this case, one might think a musical wordsmith would find difficulty getting the term “muesli” or “secondhand underpants” into a rhyme, but these simple-minded guys accomplish that feat and much more with ridiculous ease, and it never seems out of character or inauthentic.

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, the two stars of this oddly addictive comedy, come from a popular stand-up act and in the first three episodes of their sitcom, one can find some of their best stand-up material worked into the plots (including a ludicrous reggae sex anthem called “Boom.”) On one hand, it is nice to see this funny material re-purposed for television but on the other, it’s a little worrisome that only a few episodes in, the creators of the series have resorted to recycling old material. Hopefully that doesn’t indicate that the creative well-spring of the Flight of the Conchords is running dry.

A little bit of Extras, particularly in the very amusing bits about Murray, the pro-New Zealand idiot manager; a little bit The Monkees in its story-telling parameters, Flight of the Conchords is wholly entertaining and drop dead funny. It gives one hope that a post-Sopranos HBO is still a place worth visiting. I recommend the series wholeheartedly, particularly if you have a silly streak.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:57 AM

    Anne and I came across this last week and were in the floor laughing with each song.

    One of my favorites was the subtle rap line: “My name is Hip-hop-o-potamus, and my rhymes are bottomless” and then he stares blankly into the camera for about 3 seconds as if thinking of something else to say.

    I usually do not enjoy silly, but I guess this is my kind of silly.



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