Since premiering in April, The Comedians has leaned on the generational gap separating its two stars for drama and mostly left their differences explicitly unspoken. A few episodes, like “Billy’s Birthday,” address the divide while remaining non-specific; it’s an age disparity rather than a personal one, seen in a brief moment where Billy crashes and burns at an impromptu stand-up gig in front of an audience of people too young to revere him. But “Misdirection” actually tries to take a bite out of the tension between Billy and Josh by giving the latter a “win.” Josh has tried to slip his ideas past Billy or hire people he knows to work for The Comedians’ show within a show before. In “Misdirection,” he actually succeeds.
The experience goes poorly, at least for the purposes of “The Billy and Josh Show.” For our leads, it’s sort of a win. If nothing else, the exercise is an excuse for us to pick on Matt Oberg and marvel at how good Adam Campbell is at playing smarmy assholes. The English seem to think that they’re responsible for inventing everything from curry to comedy, and Campbell’s aggressively refined British superficiality makes Connor Tate a terrific antagonist for Billy and Josh to unite against almost immediately. There’s a brief moment of pause where we want to smirk at Billy’s hesitation over working with Tate; we assume that he’s just being a stubborn codger, unwilling to give Josh’s suggestions more than a moment’s thought. (Not that he necessarily should, but if you’re going to dismiss a person’s pitches, try not to be ageist.)
But then we meet Tate and we’re fully on Billy’s side. Tate is one of those too-hip douchesters who lacks proper appreciation of the past. To him, Monty Python and Fawlty Towers are relics in need of a good dusting, though he seems more keen on shattering them than giving them a contemporary polish. He takes control of the set the moment he sets foot on the lot, bringing in his own people, each as pretentious as Tate, to replace FX’s crew. Smells like trouble. Even poor Mitch, The Comedians’ trusty old schlemiel, gets shunted to the side. We love watching him trip over equipment and look like a putz, but he’s not Tate’s putz. He’s our putz. Tate’s polite contempt for him is a bridge too far.
Tate’s machinations are set off after Billy has a heart to heart with yet another comedy great, Rob Reiner, who reminds Billy in his charmingly paternal way that once upon a time, Billy was a kid with ideas of his own, too. If The Comedians does any one thing well, it’s make us feel nostalgic for the classics mentioned throughout its airing: City Slickers, the oeuvre of Mel Brooks, When Harry Met Sally. The nods don’t add much of anything other than nostalgia, but the referential meta commentary—another thing the show happens to do well—takes Billy’s fussing down a notch while poking fun at The Comedians inwardly. The self-deprecation almost feels like a necessity.
“Misdirection” ultimately intends on bringing Billy and Josh closer together, which sort of feels like a repetitive gesture. Haven’t they bonded already? Maybe “Red Carpet” didn’t bond them enough. But “Misdirection” also talks about deeper running themes than the series has bothered to confront in previous installments. This is about respect more than it is about ego. Billy just can’t bring himself to take advice from a person he sees as a kid. The trouble, of course, is that none of this material is really “new,” and worst of all, it’s shapeless. The Comedians has long struggled to figure out what direction it wants to go in, whether it’s worrying about the success of “The Billy and Josh Show” or focusing on the professional and personal relationships of its principals. Can’t it do both at the same time? Premiere dates and PR brouhaha keep on coming up, but the industry farce rarely ends up mattering until it does, which effectively stunts the story from one week to the next.
As a saving grace, “Misdirection” is very, very funny, even if it borrows and repackages a skit from Robot Chicken when Tate decides to toss away scripts and take Billy and Josh into the woods for an improv sketch involving “To Catch a Predator” and aliens. But watching The Comedians yo-yo back and forth, at turns gaining and then losing its momentum, remains a frustration. The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented—the wheel is good—but it does require basic maintenance.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.