John Mulaney’s sitcom Mulaney was highly anticipated because the guy was such a star from his time writing on Saturday Night Live (Bill Hader’s club kid Stefan, is a Mulaney creation). When it was announced that Mulaney would be leaving SNL, taking cast member Nasim Pedrad with him, audiences and critics were practically shitting themselves with anticipation. Comedy legend Martin Short and movie vet Elliot Gould signed on, and Mulaney was supposed to be a sure fire hit. So what happened?
When the show premiered it got some of the worst ratings and reviews of the 2014-2015 season. Many of the critics complained that it was a terrible Seinfeld retread. After seeing a few of the episodes, I can see the problems critics have:
- It’s multi-cam, and if it’s not a Chuck Lorre product, then a multi-cam won’t work
- Mulaney – an appealing and genial presence – doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a show
- Gould’s a treasure, but is wasted as a silly gay joke
Despite all that – and a terribly shaky pilot episode – Mulaney is shaping up to be a decent show that could become a good show if it has a chance to exploit its strong points: namely Short and Pedrad.
The show’s premise is a Xerox copy of Seinfeld – but a faded one. Mulaney stars as John Mulaney, a comedian who writes for a bombastic, hammy comic, Lou Cannon (Short). John shares a New York apartment with a fellow comic, Motif (Seaton Smith), and BFF Jane (Pedrad). So basically, it’s a show about a stand-up comic with wacky friends. Mulaney even introduces the show with a bit of his stand-up, just like Jerry Seinfeld did on his show. And John’s kooky neighbor Andre (Zack Pearlman) is a combo of George Castanza and Kramer.
The lack of originality wasn’t the only problem. As a comic persona, Mulaney’s a bit of a blank slate. He has a strong and singular voice (and is in love with 90s pop culture trivia), but it’s been flattened out to boring, sitcommy proportions. Instead of coming off as appealing, he comes off as a bit of a wimp. And he’s easily outshone by the more colorful characters that support him. And as an actor, he’s still very stiff – but that’s okay, because Roseanne Barr, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey have all started off as just decent performers before developing into wonderful actors.
All of these ingredients make for a bad show. And Mulaney started off as a bad show. But there are signs that there may be a glimmer of hope that with some extreme retooling and nurturing (and pruning), there may be an okay show lost somewhere in the mediocrity.
The first episode that manages to punch out of its boredom “Sweet Jane,” a pretty funny entry with a spiffy plot that examines the difficulty in opposite-sex best friendships. Because she’s constantly undermining John’s relationships, everyone assumes Jane’s harboring some deep love for her buddy. Thankfully, the show doesn’t go the easy route of affirming this trope and instead maintains Jane’s prickly/sweet persona. Pedrad is a find (she was underused on SNL) and is a great scene-stealer.
The following episode is even better. On “In the Name of the Mother, and the Son and the Holy Andre” John’s Catholic guilty is lampooned. And the episode is a virtual SNL reunion, having not only Mulaney, Short, and Pedrad, but comedienne Nora Dunn showing up as John’s religious mom (Dunn is great and I’d love to see more of her).
Because Mulaney‘s episode order has been cut down, it doesn’t look good for the show’s future. It’s a shame because other shows starting off badly: Parks and Recreation, Cougar Town, The Office, and 30 Rock have all had shaky starts before finding themselves. Mulaney has the potential of being good if it did some revamping: Gould belongs on TV, but not like this; more Pedrad; ditch the self-conscious Seinfeld homages; and maybe Mulaney could take some acting lessons, too.
I noticed that a lot of the negative reviews for Mulaney were tinged with regret because we all want the show and its star to do well. We remember the great jokes on SNL that tweak on 80’s and 90’s pop culture (there is no reference too obscure or ridiculous – for example, on “In the Name…” we get a Saved by the Bell: The College Years joke – yeah, you read the right, The College Years) and of course, Stefan’s a legend now (though a lot of it is due to Hader’s inability to keep his shit together when trying to recite Mulaney’s insane jokes). Like the other critics, I’m a Mulaney fan, too, and may be giving it more credit than it may be due.