With Loudermilk, Ron Livingston and the Farrelly Brothers Rethink the Misanthropic ComedyPhoto: Audience Network TV Features Loudermilk
After weeks of smoke from the season’s wildfires, it’s an immaculate late-summer day in North Vancouver’s Greenwood Park, and Ron Livingston is in the process of disemboweling a would-be poet. As the eponymous antihero of Audience Network’s sophomore comedy, Loudermilk, created by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Mort, the actor turns caustic, and desert dry: Ornery rock critic Sam Loudermilk, author of the book “All You Need Is Love” and 500 Other Songs to Kill Yourself To, never minces words. In the scene being filmed the morning I come to set, climbing a steep trail lined with lush ferns and fallen logs to reach a rock outcropping known as “God’s Chair,” Loudermilk crushes the spirit of an aspiring writer he finds spray-painting his nonsense onto the stone. Still, in the tradition of the misanthropic comedy, there could always be another, sharper insult to leap off the tongue. As the episode’s director, Bobby Farrelly, remarks at one point, “You could’ve given a harsher review.”
The twist, in Loudermilk, is that Sam’s a recovering alcoholic and the leader of a support group for his fellow addicts: In the annals of sitcom assholes, from Seinfeld and Californication to Curb Your Enthusiasm (twice), he might be the only one for whom the trait is tied up in a disease. It’s this, Livingston says, that defines the series’ approach to familiar TV tropes.
“A lot of comedies are built on the idea that we all have these foibles that we don’t know about or aren’t aware of that keep surfacing and we keep thinking that we’re transcending them and then life kind of drops us on our ass and laughs at us,” he says, as we sit in the shade to avoid the warm midday sun. But in Loudermilk, he adds, the challenge the characters face is much bigger than a “foible”: “It’s kind of cruelly comic how much these people aren’t in control of their lives, and it’s also profoundly uplifting the sort of courage and tenacity they put into trying to get back into control of their lives.”
In fact, one might map the series’ first season by which characters are losing, or gaining, control. Loudermilk’s sponsor, roommate, and best friend, Ben (Will Sasso), is hiding the fact that he’s off the wagon—he’s self-medicating, it seems, because he’s also sleeping with Loudermilk’s ex-wife—and Loudermilk responds to the betrayal by briefly relapsing himself. The pair also takes in a young addict named Claire (Anja Savcic), who finds increasing purpose, and solace, in sobriety, but remains relatively new to the recovery process. (Some of the most compelling moments in Season Two find Claire calling Loudermilk out for failing to heed his own advice to the group.) The result is a misanthropic comedy in which the misanthrope might be the most well-adjusted of the bunch.
“I feel like there’s license given to Loudermilk because he is one of those TV ‘asshole’ characters,” Sasso tells me, during a short interlude between set-ups. (Loudermilk, one of the more nimble and relaxed sets I’ve visited, films each episode in an almost unheard-of four days, according to Livingston.) “It sort of loosens up those around him to deal with this guy, and again sort of heightens the comedy. We get away with a lot because, for lack of a better description, Loudermilk is fucked up. And he knows he’s fucked up. But in a way, he’s the most principled character in the entire show, because he really is living and breathing it every single moment.”
“He’s got that Larry David thing where it’s like, he could make his life a lot easier if he didn’t tangle with everyone he met, but at the same time, he won’t suffer fools,” Bobby Farrelly adds, noting that Loudermilk’s anger at small affronts—the noise of a sleep apnea machine, Comic Sans font—stems from anger with much deeper roots—his strained relationship with his father, for instance, or his role in a serious car wreck that left his ex-wife with a prosthetic leg. “And he really can’t keep things inside of him. So when something bothers him, he has to speak up about it. He’s that guy. He just can’t contain it.”
Frustratingly—though perhaps not surprisingly, given the Farrellys’ pedigree— Loudermilk often directs these energies at low-hanging fruit: The new season features a gag about “upspeak” that would’ve been tired two years after Clueless, and an irredeemably broad subplot about the group getting into hot water with the Seattle mob. When it focuses its protagonist’s intolerance for bullshit on the details of alcoholism and sobriety, though, the series turns a familiar archetype into a novel satirical weapon: The Season Two premiere contrasts Loudermilk’s indelicate approach to treatment with that of the peppy know-nothing who takes over his meeting and a high-priced rehab facility called Hideaway Hills. It’s lacerating and honest, which is what misanthropic comedies have always strived for.
“The one that I go back to on this is Walter Matthau in any number of things, but especially The Bad News Bears,” Livingston says. “You have a guy that’s basically just the worst possible role model, untrustworthy, completely unreliable, and yet—without changing who he is—he becomes this kind of positive force in the lives of these kids. And always in a funny way. There’s a long tradition of the misanthrope, which is comical because you hate all people, but you’re still a person. You can’t ever quite reconcile that.”
Season Two of Loudermilk premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Audience Network.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.