TVLand may have built its brand around old reruns of The Honeymooners, Hogan’s Heroes and The Ed Sullivan Show, but its current lineup of new shows reveals that somebody at the network has an edgier sense of humor. The first sign came when the basic cable channel mixed in a new show called Younger from the creator of Sex in the City. And now the Wednesday night lineup consists of The Jim Gaffigan Show and Impastor. The latter is the darkest thing we’ve seen yet on TVLand, something that even came as a surprise to its cast.
“When they sent me the script, I got three scripts at one time: a dark comedy from FX, something else and a TVLand pilot,” recalls Sara Rue, who plays a somewhat gullible church secretary Dora. “I read Impastor first, and I thought it was the dark, edgy thing from FX. And I said, ‘I love the dark, edgy thing from FX, let’s go after that.’ And then there was this whole misunderstanding. I was like, ‘No, I like the one about the fake pastor.’ And they were like, ‘That’s TVLand.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no. It can’t be. There’s cursing and there’s sex. Are they really going to let us do this?’ And they have. They’ve stuck by their decision to make a dark, weird comedy. They’ve let us say things that I can’t believe they’ve let us say. And they’ve let us do things that I can’t believe they’ve let us do.”
The show stars Michael Rosenbaum as Buddy, a con man who assumes the life of a new pastor in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, after that pastor slips and falls, trying to convince Buddy not to kill himself. Watching this good samaritan plummet from a bridge to his death in the rapids far below is the first sign that this is not your grandfather’s TVLand. The humor mines some darker territory, like when a tactless detective explains to Buddy’s girlfriend the likely gruesome details of a death by jumping.
Rosenbaum is best known for his portrayal of Lex Luthor in Smallville, but here he gets to be the lovable anti-hero. “It’s like Lex Luthor to Lex Loser,” he says. “Lex Luthor is so flawed. When you find out about his past and what he’s gone through and his childhood, his upbringing, you feel for him. And I think with Buddy, you start to feel for him as well. It’s like, why did he get to where he is now? Why is he a con man? Why has he had no luck? Why does he want to jump off a bridge in the opening scene in the pilot? And you feel for him. You realize he’s just this lovable idiot who’s never had a break. He’s trying to figure it out. It’s really fun to play a guy who’s just winging it. Imagine having to lie—everything you say is a lie. It’s not only lying to the congregation, but coming up with a past, who you are, and coming up with sermons.”
If the character feels at all familiar, Rosenbaum looked to some of his comedic heroes for inspiration. “Buddy’s a character,” he says, “but he’s a goofball. There’s a little bit of Fletch in there, because I’m a big Chevy Chase fan. I get to mix it up and be an idiot. In the sermon episode, there’s a little moment when Chris Farley just channels right through him. ‘Good Lord! Believe what I tell you!’”
While the show is a small-town comedy at its heart, there are other elements at play when Buddy’s past starts catching up with him. “We’re an edgy, dark comedy that pushes the envelope,” Rue says. “But there’s also these procedural elements to it, where there’s a murder mystery through-line and every episode ends in a cliffhanger. We’re a comedy that’s trying to change the format of comedy a little bit, which is a big undertaking. But I think we do a pretty good job.”
Impastor is about a church community, but Rosenbaum says that Christianity isn’t really the target of its humor. “It’s a balancing act,” he says. “Can [Buddy] pull this off when he’s a pot-smoking atheist and he’s surrounded by people who really believe in God? So throughout we see, is this divine intervention? Is there a God? It’s not God-hating. People are out there thinking it’s just bashing on God or religion. I mean, I like making fun of religion as I do my own religion or people in general… There’s a little something I like from every religion. But to me, good religion is family. And being a good person. And hopefully Buddy Dobbs in this show will learn that eventually. We don’t know. It’s been a rough start.”
But if TVLand is at all worried about alienating its current audience, they certainly aren’t showing it with a risque comedy about a fake gay pastor—with murder and sex and drugs and a whole episode about masturbation.
“I got to do a lot of things where I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this, and I hope my mother does not watch this episode,” adds Rue. “Whenever I thought that, I was like, ‘No, that’s great because it means we’re pushing the envelope, and doing something I’ve never done before and that TVLand has never done.”
And if the audience doesn’t respond, they can always stick with TVLand’s eight-hour daytime Wednesday block of nothing but Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Gilligan’s Island.