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Loads of potential; occasional sparks of brilliance
John Mulaney is a funny guy. There's no doubt about it; just watch his comedy special "New in Town" on Netflix. His delivery is deadpan, which may turn off some people, but once you understand that his humor presents itself in subtle, sarcastic tones, it's easy to see why Mulaney wanted to have his own sitcom - an edgy, modernized version of Seinfeld. Yeah, the Seinfeld comparison was inevitable. I got it out of the way early.
The problem with Mulaney is that it got off on the wrong foot. The pilot was a disastrous mish mash of jokes from his stand-up routines, with the obligatory forced character introductions and sub par acting. The next few episodes weren't much better - characters were developed slightly but the chemistry was lacking. They weren't fleshed out enough and none of them were particularly likable; aside from Oscar, of course, played wonderfully by Elliot Gould as Mulaney's warmhearted openly gay hippie neighbor.
When Mulaney does shine, it shines bright. Nothing shows this better than the recent stretch of episodes - "Worlds Collide", "French Roast", and "Power Moves" - which are examples of when the show actually feels like a sitcom, and not just some struggling comedian being put in awkward situations and reacting to them. They have genuine character development, interactions you actually care about, and every character has found their purpose.
Jane, the tomboyish roommate that is easily annoyed and as sarcastic as she is crass. Oscar, the wise caregiver who provides an older generation's perspective to modern trivialities. Lou, the narcissistic boss who thrives on other people's suffering. Andre, the awkward pill-pusher who desperately wants to fit in. Motif, the oblivious mooching roommate who always has the best of intentions. And John, the struggling comedian working for a sociopath, having to deal with two polar opposite roommates and trying to find stability in the capitalist insanity that is New York.
Some character combinations work better than others. For example, Oscar and Jane had magical moments together on "French Roast". It was the ultimate conundrum for Jane: having to tone down her crude personality to impress a guy, and this was paired with Oscar's hilariously machismo sense of 1950s etiquette. Jane and Lou had their moments on "World Collide", both of them as self-absorbed as the other and leeching off each other's company with the other being none the wiser. John and Motif have a similar childish comic mentality which makes the confrontations involving all three roommates a constant recipe for hilarity.
Mulaney simply needs to find its groove. Now that John has gotten his rehashed stand-up jokes out of his system, he can start treating it like the sitcom it's supposed to be. The show is at its best when it's at its most subtle or most offensive, much like Mulaney's stand-up. Wise cracks like Oscar's "She was a dentist and one day said "enough!" and became a therapist," casually peppered into a conversation. Jane agreeing to work for Lou by stating "for $750 a day you can call me a dumb bitch." Lou and his demoralization of an employee, calling him a liar for saying his grandmother's in the hospital when she was actually dead. Jane catching John praying to himself and John's startled excuse that he "was just masturbating."
I don't want to get into the acting performances, but to put it simply, John is the weak link. His neutral delivery is fine for when he's helping set up a joke, or even for the occasional dry punchline. But there are moments where his robotic line reading is just uninteresting and not at all captivating. Thankfully, that doesn't happen often, because Nasim Pedrad (Jane) essentially steals the show. Her character is the most realized - she has the best lines, and she's basically a negative, repulsive personality, which ensures the funniest confrontations. Martin Short and Elliot Gould are fantastic with what they are given. Gould could use more screen time, and Short's segments on his game show could be cut altogether and it wouldn't be much of a loss. But their performances are game, and they manage to turn otherwise unfunny dialogue into hiccups of guilty laughter.
Once the writers take note of which jokes work and which don't, it will go a long way to helping Mulaney become the great sitcom it has the potential to be. That is, assuming it doesn't get canceled, which unfortunately is looking more and more plausible. Oh well, Fox has allowed worse shows on the air for longer- fingers crossed for Mulaney.
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