Maybe if we all ask very nicely, Larry David will just come back with another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. That’s where my thoughts kept returning as I watched The Comedians, which premieres Thursday night at 10 and is FX’s latest comedy to muddy the waters between real-life comedians and their fictionalized counterparts in an alternate version of Hollywood. But this show is too meta for its own good.
The story here is that Billy Crystal (Billy Crystal) can only get a sketch-comedy show greenlit by FX if he agrees to be cast alongside Josh Gad (Josh Gad), and from the very beginning, the show is almost too self-aware. The age gap between the two comedic actors is front and center, and through it, The Comedians is attempting to tell any number of stories about comedy today. Or the entertainment industry as a whole. Or the particular lives of Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. The nine episodes that FX sent out for review cover such wide-ranging topics as vulgarity, laugh track versus no laugh track, cellphone videos at comedy clubs, diversity in the writers’ room, and celebrity misbehavior as public entertainment. If this all sounds about as exciting as a New York Times op-ed, you’re in the ballpark. (Which reminds me: lotta baseball material. Lot. Of. Baseball.)
The problem with The Comedians isn’t that it feels like the old-man rantings of a once-vital comedian who’s finding it harder and harder to relate to the entertainment business today. Crystal isn’t shy about pointing that out, certainly, but that he’s willing to engage with these issues at all should keep him out of the “kids today” doghouse. The problem is that most of the observations and punch lines about these issues are as limp as the pitching arm of a baseball player I could name if I had half of Crystal’s enthusiasm for the game. There’s no bite to anything in this show, from Crystal’s home life (his wife is played by Dana Delany, who could use a thing or three to do besides roll her eyes good-naturedly), to Gad winking at his obnoxious-fat-guy persona, to, most importantly, any of the backstage goings-on at the show-within-the-show.
One of the most surprising things about The Comedians is that it has regular cast members who aren’t Crystal or Gad. Matt Oberg plays the show’s mumbly head writer, Stephnie Weir is a high-strung executive producer, and Megan Ferguson is its April Ludgate–esque production assistant. Nine episodes in, I can’t even begin to tell you why their characters are there or what they mean to Crystal and Gad’s sketch show. They’re there to fill in the time between the scenes where Crystal and Gad engage in a low-stakes game of vaguely exasperated cat and annoying-but-not-too-drastic mouse.
The great thing about a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm, or even an OK show like Showtime’s Episodes—which trudges similar ground—is that it’s willing to fight absurdity with absurdity. The world of The Comedians never feels all that outrageous. The sketches that Crystal and Gad perform in are all solid B-minus to C-plus. Their stop-and-start friendship is utterly unremarkable. Nobody seems willing to go anywhere remotely risky. In the first episode, Steven Weber shows up as the program’s director who has recently transitioned (in some vaguely defined way) to a transgender woman. I was so ready for something offensive to transpire that I nearly grabbed the arms of my chair. Crystal, after all, hasn’t been great when commenting on LGBTQ issues recently. There I was, in crash position, only … nothing happened. I don’t mean nothing offensive. I mean nothing. A few jokes about Weber’s former relationship with the Weir character, and then he was out the door within a couple episodes. It felt like the writers had tossed Weber in under the pretense that cable TV should be brave enough to tackle transgender characters in 2015, but that was where the boldness ended. This is The Comedians in a nutshell, unfortunately: It wants to be edgy, but it just has nothing much to say.