Flight of the Conchords

A new HBO comedy channels the spirit of Ricky Gervais and Christopher Guest.

Bret McKenzie, Jemaine Clement, Rhys Darby in Flight of the Conchords

The handsomely shaggy-haired new comedy series Flight of the Conchords (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET) succeeds by flopping around in the shameless sweet spot where paying tribute to one’s influences, mocking them, and ripping them fully off become inseparable propositions. We’ve been prepared for its premise—a dim pair of musicians rattle and hum through absurd rock songs—by the only-half-ironic bombast of Tenacious D. The New Zealand-born stars, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, play incompetent Kiwis named Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, and as this bottom-rung folk duo blunders through New York City, the show’s rhythms follow the awkward pauses and instant reversals of Ricky Gervais’ office drones and Christopher Guest’s obsessives.

Flight of the Conchords samples all these beats to make hipsters hop on lazy Sunday, and the patron saint of the endeavor is the singer Beck—specifically, the Beck who strutted and preened through 1999’s Midnite Vultures, a too-ironic-by-half compilation of blue-eyed funk. Indeed, when the Conchords break into the first of the series’ many musical numbers, their song initially seems like nothing more than a clever imitation of that album’s last track. Bret, moved to lift his voice by the sight of a delicate blonde at an apartment party, lets leak a ludicrous slow jam (“Let’s get in a cab/ I’ll buy you a kebab”) that’s the spitting image of “Debra” (“I said, “Lady,/ Step inside my Hyundai”).

The placement of this song may leave those viewers already inclined to player-hate the show—its advance publicity has rung obnoxiously loud—with the impression that these jokers have no ideas of their own, but as the first four episodes unfold, it becomes delightfully clear that McKenzie and Clement are upping the ante. They create cute little comic ditties that stand on their own to tease both the delusions of sensitive young men and the pretensions of pop songs. They’ve got a fair bit of range. Funk songs, dancehall anthems, and power ballads alike come in for parodic treatment. While a robot-themed bit of slagging on Radiohead doesn’t really click until its reprise, which features a “binary solo”—”zero zero zero zero zero zero zero zero one”—a synth-pop sprechsingen modeled on the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls” emerges as a very fine take on starving-artist poverty:

You want to sit down
But you’ve sold the chair
So, you just stand there

You just stand there

Clement, with his glasses and his cleft chin and his inch-wide sideburns, resembles a hybrid of David Cross and someone very handsome. His shtick is self-delusional buffoonery. McKenzie has a face like a knife and eyes to make all the girls swoon. Coincidentally, his shtick is delusional buffoonery. Please welcome them to these shores with open arms, as in that Journey song, which they really could do something great with. Seriously.