Did FX intentionally place every episode in The Comedians’ first season out of order or something? For the last few weeks or so, every new offering has included one chunk of banter, one plot-driving conflict, or one offhand gag that hints at the strain of Billy’s working relationship with Josh; you’d think the show forgot to establish their professional-level agitations with each other from the word “go,” and that we began not with Gad kicking over set pieces and Billy firing people but with cordiality. Each new blatant reminder of their trifling quarrels feels like a slap upside the head, as though we need a blunt force refresher of the embarrassing, petty squabbles from behind the scenes of “The Billy and Josh Show.”
But when it’s not making an exhaustive address of the repetitive conflict between its stars, “Red, White, & Working Blue” does perform the valuable service of highlighting its supporting cast. Mel Brooks was right to say that The Comedians has to put its faith in the Crystal/Gad combo in order to work; at the same time, Matt Oberg, Megan Ferguson and Stephnie Weir (especially Weir) are each terrific, and a little focus apportioned to each of them can go a long way toward keeping a plot afloat. Here, they pop up as bit players as “The Billy and Josh Show” pushes production to the 4th of July and pisses off everybody from PAs to FX bigwigs. Why the 4th? It’s a long story. Mostly it involves a Make a Wish child, a sketch about porn, and Billy’s oft-stated discomfort with ribaldry.
Is this ever going to be a plot device that we get past? Or that Billy gets past? “Red, White, & Working Blue” begins with a script reading for a piece Josh wrote, in which Billy plays a dad dropping his daughter off for her first day as an adult entertainment star. Hilarious. Billy, of course, finds all of this in poor taste, because dick jokes are anathema to him, and so he endeavors to kill the sketch without Josh finding out. His bid for decency throws shooting all off track, and everybody on the crew—represented mostly by Mitch and Esme—winds up pissed off when they have to miss their Independence Day barbeques as a result. Who can blame them? Who wouldn’t get their asses chapped over having to miss beers, burgers and ba-booms just to stroke celebrity egos and shoot some terrible Big/The Little Mermaid mash-up?
On its own, “Red, White, & Working Blue” is totally fine. In a vacuum, it works. It’s funny in that cringing way programs like The Comedians aspire to be, though a lot of the better laughs originate from the secondary players. (If it’s not already clear, Weir kills it. She has a disturbing knack for turning gruesome human misfortunes into uncomfortable hilarity.) The problem is that “Red, White, & Working Blue” doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so the constant reinforcement of tropes we’ve come to expect from The Comedians feels sort of insulting. If Billy and Josh are meant to clash on every episode, that’s fine. But if that’s the way it’s meant to be, then their differences don’t need to be reintroduced using the same language in the same ways. We get it. Billy is old. Josh is young. They’re from different eras with different definitions of “humor.” It’s not rocket science.
The Comedians’ biggest failure in its cardinal season has been its inability to find a consistent rhythm from one episode to the next. “Red, White, & Working Blue” illustrates that failure more clearly than any other entry in the series to date. Being funny is no longer good enough; if anything, an injection of cogency would be a big improvement over punchlines.
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.