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Courtesy of Netflix

April 17, 2016

The Characters: Experimental, if Inconsistent

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What happens when you give comedians free reign for a 30-minute special?

Utter absurdity. At least, that’s what the Netflix comedy special, The Characters, would suggest. The avant-garde experiment features eight lesser-known comedians who write and star in a 30-minute episode completely under their own creative control. The big twist? Each comedian plays several different characters throughout their feature, showcasing their acting versatility and comedic capability.

But that’s where the similarities between each installment of The Characters end. The episodes range from being traditionally sketch-style (“Lauren Lapkus,” “John Early”) to following a single, somewhat bizarre narrative (“Henry Zebrowski,” “Kate Berlant”) to having multiple intertwined storylines filmed skillfully in a single shot (“Dr. Brown”). The production of these greatly varied performances highlights each comedian’s strengths: Kate Berlant’s hilarious parody of the self-serious artist is quietly awkward, John Early’s zany characters are complemented by close-up cinematography and Natasha Rothwell’s vibrant comedy is mirrored by sharp settings and loud colors. Through a top-notch production team that plays to the comedian’s strengths and gives them professional resources, otherwise muted talents come to light in The Characters.

Of all the episodes, Kate Berlant’s brilliant satire takes the cake for the most exceptionally performed comedy in the entire collection. Her documentary-style episode features a modern performance artist named Denise St. Roy who takes herself far too seriously, lampooning the haughtiness of artistic and intellectual elitism. St. Roy’s influence is exaggerated to that of a modern-day genius within the first few minutes of the episode (An adorable Frank Gehry, playing himself, remarks, “Everything didn’t have to be so vertical, she taught me”) but is later hilariously juxtaposed with St. Roy lying on her bed sadly soliciting friendship from her uninterested maid. Berlant’s episode does precisely what The Characters set out for every comedian to do: make your own brand of comedy and run with it. Her absurdist humor, though beautiful on its own, implicitly critiques intellectualism is its own, unique Berlant-esque way. The experimental stage of The Characters let Berlant do what so few traditional television platforms allow: work her own unrestrained, funny magic.

Like many experiments, however, not everything in The Characters goes particularly smoothly. Although each comedian adopts their own tone and mixes a unique flavor into their 30-minutes of fame, some jokes fall flat. Lapkus’s parody of The Bachelor, for example, is more cringey than funny, and Early’s characters often pause for a beat too many. As if to remind the audience of how raw the show is despite its high-quality production, each episode comes with its highs and lows, hitting the viewer with laugh-out-loud funny quips one moment and utter confusion the next.

The sinusoidal humor, however inconsistent, is still rather productive, creating a diversity of genuine comedy that can satisfy almost anyone. Zebrowski’s episode is Adult Swim-level crass, but also gently vulnerable. Berlant’s is effortlessly deadpanned yet deeply critical. Dr. Brown’s is confoundingly silly, but also masterfully written. Rothwell’s? It’s viral video hilarious, but also incredibly authentic. Altogether, the collection is a spectrum of the new generation of comedy, with enough range to please nearly any viewer.

Above all, a show like The Characters is important in an era where traditional media is having a quasi-showdown with new user-generated media like YouTube, yet is simultaneously attempting to absorb the popularity of internet content (see: the totally dissonant and out-of-place Smosh: The Movie). Netflix obviously never truly fit into the realm of traditional media, but nevertheless the streaming service has dipped into the tricky intersection of up-and-coming postmodern content and the conventional, comfortable realm of television. Of course, the comedians on The Characters are anything but comedic freshmen; several have been trained in improvisational comedy at the illustrious Upright Citizens Brigade theatre. But what The Characters does cleverly is combine the expertise of these talented comedians with their relative lack of recognizability and their unrestrained creativity in order to create a brilliant compilation of what viewers can only expect to be the comedy of the future.

Pegah Moradi is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at pm443@cornell.edu. 

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