And so ends the first season of The Comedians, not with a bang but with a two-episode blaze of uncertainty. “Overhear” and “Partners” combine with each other to make a double-edged blade. They showcase both the best and the worst of what the show has offered over the last couple of months: Billy and Josh get into it, have a conflict, and grow as characters more in a sub-hour, multi-part finale than they have throughout most of the series to date, and The Comedians suddenly feels like it has weight to go along with its meta navel-gazing and cringe gags. The problem, of course, is that the show has oscillated between following a throughline and meandering since its premiere, so the climax feels almost like anti-climax.
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with sitcoms that want to occasionally have self-contained episodes that wander down unbeaten paths. But The Comedians has stumbled in its hermetic moments, because they occur in a space where events that happened prior to their airing don’t matter. There’s no consistency. If The Billy and Josh Show has a tragically hip British auteur take over for one taping, that’s fine. If the action moves away from the studio and into L.A. to make an doleful and awkward celebration of Billy’s name day, that’s also fine. What is decidedly less fine is that these storylines unfold without making acknowledgement of what took place even a week ago. The Comedians’s Crystal heel has always been its failure to establish a rhythm from one outing to the next.
So “Overhear” and “Partners” succeed just by being about something meaningful, though it’s almost too little, too late, as the old bromide goes. Maybe wisely, the former installment leans on the “upstart punk” side of Josh, kicking off with a sequence in his dressing room where he’s cajoled by his asshole friends—Rory Scovel, Dan Gill and Kate Micucci—into smack-talking Billy. It’s a smart set-up; nobody in their right mind could buy Gad as the kind of person who would willfully deride his living legend co-star behind his back. (Or anybody. Try to imagine Gad trashing, say, a puppy out of earshot. It’s impossible.) It’s much easier to buy him as the kind of person who might be easily peer pressured into whispering and snickering about Billy as a relic of comedy’s past.
Josh’s clandestine aspersions aren’t so hush-hush, though, and Billy winds up pissed off at his co-star. The rest of “Overhear,” and all of “Partners,” clears up the bad feeling Billy has over the incident, and reestablishes the status quo with warmth and good humor (including sketches from the show-within-the-show that range from an unflattering Chaplin biography to a WWII movie parody). It also introduces a potential disaster when Denis O’Hare puts in a brief appearance that begins with great news—a time slot that puts The Billy and Josh Show right after Louie—and ends with morbidity. Denis Grant, we hardly knew ye. Like, really, we barely knew you at all, except that you enjoy a good old fashioned cackle at the misery of others.
Will Michaela Watkins be the executive level heavy in The Comedians’ second go-round? For whatever reason, “Partners” elects to characterize her as someone who hates comedy, which feels like a lazy creative choice and a clear signal that we’ll be seeing more of her in the future (but not much more, because we all know how screen time FX gave to O’Hare). Is the joke here that all decision-making types have no sense of humor? In dying, goes Denis Grant pass on his own humorlessness to Wendy? The transition reads as ambivalent, as though nobody really put much thought into knocking off Denis, but The Comedians needs a bad guy apart from its stars’ respective egos.
It also desperately needs focus. The Comedians is at its best when it foregrounds its thoughts about celebrity and its mockery of studio television’s “creative” process in actual plot; letting Josh and Billy be themselves, whether for better or worse, helps a lot, too. Go back over The Comedians’ best offerings this season and you’ll find that they all hew closely to this exact blueprint. The inverse is also true—when the series goes off-course, it sags. Can a second season fix its attention deficit issues? Will there even be a second season? Maybe, like The Billy and Josh Show, The Comedians is destined for the axe, which would just be so self-reflective as to be sickening. FX has yet to pass judgment in one direction or the other, but if the die falls on the side of renewal, the network might want to think about giving the show something that looks like purpose.
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.