February 15th, 2009
It’s been a few weeks since I checked back in with Flight of the Conchords, and it’s really out of perpetual mild disappointment: it’s not that the show has become unfunny, but rather that part of its charm has more or less disappeared. The show has felt like it was reaching in order to recreate some of its comic highlights from the first season, with the expanded roles for Murray and Mel not being entirely unwelcome, but the charm of the show came less from the parts and more from how they came together into musically-themed episodes. The first few episodes of the season proved that the show was capable of surviving without the same kind of memorable songs, the same kind of thematic consistency to the episodes, but there was still something missing.
I think that “Unnatural Love” captures it, though: whether it was returning to the love life of our characters (a highlight for much of the show’s best material, including “If You’re Into It”), or the direction of Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, various fantastic music videos), this one just felt like it was operating on a different level. I actually think that some of the other episodes this season had some sharper comedy, but the songs were so much better here, and the comedy still in plentiful supply, that this is easily my favourite episode of the season thus far.
From the outset, this one is mining comic material that the show has always alluded to but never focused on this heavily. Having Jemaine fall in love with an Australian plays out exactly as we’d expect, with plenty of opportunities to play into Australian stereotypes. I actually really enjoyed Keitha as a character even: she was unabashedly honest with her feelings, and her telling of her family history was one of the comic highlights of the episode. I find the best Conchords storylines are the ones that are actually quite mundane, but are expanded into something far more serious and complex by the neuroses of our favourite New Zealand folk comedy duo. This is the perfect example because it is a perfect and logical reason for them to do so, requiring less a suspension of disbelief than a standing relationship with the series.
As a storyline, the comedy played out on those two levels, one Jemaine experiencing Keitha’s Australian tea, waking up with the poster of Ayers Rock and the other Murray and Bret doing their finest to handle the fallout from this unnatural love. The former was more broad, but I love the dynamic between Murray and the band so much at this point that I don’t know if they can do wrong. Murray squinting his ears was just brilliant, and whether it was early on in the episode in the car or later when he decided to start calling Bret Little B (He’s Medium M, of course) you just realize that this character has ridiculous conversations and thoughts even when we’re not seeing him on screen. I think that some of the other episodes let Murray lose a bit more, but this was a good dynamic for Bret: I enjoyed his fake phone message, and the fight he had with Jemaine once the latter decided to depart anyways was one of those moments that are just fun to watch.
One of my favourite Bret and Jemaine scenes in the episode, actually, was the point where Jemaine was composing his little ditty for Australians believing in love and tried to ask Bret a question about it. The exchange, wherein Bret asked if it could wait until morning and Jemaine thought for a second before agreeing, was not substantial in the least but it was the kind of scene that would have never played out that way in another show. Actually waiting until morning was just a very simple little joke, but with the overhead camera angle and the overall staging it was just a great deal of fun to watch.
The songs have always been the main thing that sets the show apart, but its brand of humour has been its identifying feature so far this season. While I know I am mostly alone in not yet finding a single song to really latch onto this season, having not been as much of a fan of “Sugalumps” as most people, overall most agree that the songs have taken a backseat. Well, I personally feel as if this changed dramatically this week. “Too Many Dicks (On the Dance Floor)” was the start of things, a quite catchy techno dance track about the danger of a male-dominated dance surface. Yes, this is the second rap-like dance track that has to deal with the male anatomy this season, but I prefer this one to “Sugalumps” because it’s more natural: I don’t find the inherent irony of New Zealand folk comedy singers hardcore rapping as funny as the same singers becoming electronic superstars, based mostly on musical tastes I guess. It was a good start to the episode, and should be quite memorable.
But, for me, the real highlight of this episode and the season is “Carol Brown,” perhaps one of my favourite Conchords songs over the course of two seasons. It is perhaps one of the catchiest melodies that they’ve created, and more importantly it really fit the episode thematically. Relationships really have led to some of the show’s best songs, which I guess makes sense considering the musical tradition has followed much the same pattern, but this one just really worked for me. As a sort of thematic partner to Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” the song has a chorus of girlfriends from the past adding to its power, and I’ve had the song on repeat while writing this review and gladly spent $0.99 on it as soon as it was available on iTunes.
And yet, what really made these two songs stand out was not just their quality in and of themselves but also the direction of Michel Gondry lending this episode another sort of special feeling. The two songs benefitted from his visionary style, albeit to different degrees. “Too Many Dicks” had its psychadelic setting in the dance club, which had some neat shots and the rather cool effect of the disco ball crotch covers reflecting all of the light, and certainly puts some past musical number setups to shame.
But the real piece d’resistance was the great use of special effects in “Carol Brown,” including various Gondry-esque tricks (the shrinking/growing Conchords) and the very effective use of the wall as a screen of all the different girlfriends. It was a really impressive piece of special effects and editing both, and turned an enjoyable song into an extremely memorable part of this episode. I don’t know if they’ll be able to match this, in fact: you combine my favourite song of the season with the best staging the show has perhaps ever seen, and there’s nowhere to go but down.
I have that concern about the episode as a whole, actually: you combine a fairly enjoyable storyline with a couple of memorable songs, all wrapped together by some noteworthy direction, and you have something that might be tough for the rest of the season to live up to. I can hope that this is a sign of an upward swing in momentum, and that things will only get better from here, but I can’t view this as a trend yet. Regardless, I enjoyed the heck out of this one, so at the very least the show is back in my good books.
- Last week’s was probably the roughest of the season for me, which is not Jim Gaffigan’s fault (I enjoy him on My Boys) so much as it is a problem with episodes that focus so heavily on people who aren’t Bret and Jemaine. There is something about spending time with too many outside people that seems almost odd, and while the show has branched into this material more this season it hasn’t started working 100% quite yet.
- I just realized that it was Sarah Wynter playing Keitha, which more or less blows my mind: she played Jack’s quasi-love interest in 24’s second season, and while I knew she was an Australian to see her in such a great comic role like this is kind of fantastic. I just need to remind myself to never accept tea from her, whether I like Froot Loops or not.
- Great detail during the first song of the evening: the disco dick (with two disco balls as, well, you know) hanging above the dance floor in one long shot. It made me chuckle.
- Dave is a character that has always been good for a burst of comedy, but his run here (again not knowing New Zealand, or Australia, or that New Jersey wasn’t in another country) was kind of awesome, and he contributed well the opening scene/song.