Friday, February 19, 2010

On HBO, 'Tim' lives, 'Gervais' sneers, 'Funny' dies

Posted By on Fri, Feb 19, 2010 at 9:35 PM

It would be easy to mistake Friday nights on HBO with an average evening of late night, "Adult Swim" programming on The Cartoon Network. Tonight, Feb. 19, HBO attempts to renew its hip, web-savvy credentials with the series premieres of "The Ricky Gervais Show" (9 p.m.) and "Funny or Die" (midnight), as well as the return of "The Life and Times of Tim" (9:30 p.m.). "The Life and Times of Tim" gets the biggest laughs while, ironically, having the most tentative connections to the Web.

Created by Steve Dildarian, "The Life and Times of Tim's" first season (released on DVD on Feb. 9) may have been one of the best-kept secrets in HBO history. If the premium cable channel hadn't sent us screeners, I might not even know of its existence in 2008, but it's a pleasingly scruffy, deadpan cartoon in which no good deed -- and certainly no bad one -- goes unpunished. "Tim" combines the cringe-humor of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" with the improvised-sounding, naturalistic dialogue and deliberately cruddy animation of "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist."

As the voice of Tim, a lazy slacker and entry-level corporate drone, Dildarian evokes the nasal understatement of Ray Romano at his best, and routinely gets guffaws with a simple line like "I don't know where this is going." Dildarian's short "Angry Unpaid Hooker" portrayed Tim as a lying sack of sleaze, but on the show, he generally has good intentions that blow up in his face. Here's the original short, a revised version of which provided the Season 1 premiere:

The first season finale implied that Tim's long-suffering, perpetually annoyed girlfriend Amy dumped his sorry ass. Fortunately voice actor MJ Otto continues to provide a superb foil for Dildarian on "Tim's" second season. Based on the press screeners provided, the new season seeks to further the develop the supporting cast of characters, but also resorts to more complicated, contrived storylines, reminiscent of the final years of "Seinfeld." The "Pharmaceutical Sales Rep Gone Wild" plot of the March 19 episode, however, turns out to be a winner. If you miss the low-key humor of the non-musical scenes of "Flight of the Conchords," "The Life and Times of Tim" offers a droll substitute.

The title "The Ricky Gervais Show" (9 p.m.) holds a lot of promise as a showcase for the star and co-creator of "The Office" and "Extras." The series presents an animated version of a long-running series of podcast chats between Gervais, Stephen Merchant (his creative partner on those shows) and producer Karl Pilkington. Based on the opening episode, Pilkington, rendered to resemble a sad-sack Charlie Brown type, serves as something of a stooge to Merchant and Gervais (who looks strikingly like a brunette Barney Rubble). Pilkington's ambivalence about iPods, for instance, inspires extended digressions on the downside of technological innovation. Their conversations about pseudo-philosophical subject matter probably plays well in audio form, but the bland Hanna-Barbera-style animation makes the material less engaging, not more so.

The "Funny or Die" sketch comedy show overtly plays up its origins as a cross-pollinating venture between HBO and the Funny or Die comedy video website created by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, on which viewers can click "funny" for good ones, "die" for the rest. (Their short "The Landlord" is probably the best-known clip.) The TV series' retro-style framing devices pitch "Funny or Die" as a cutting-edge combination of broadcast and internet technology, although the titles, fonts and clunky computers all seem to date to the late 1960s.

"Funny or Die's" first episodes live up to the title a little too well with some highly uneven offerings. Highlights include an amusing version of the site's regular feature "Drunk History," which here shows Ferrell and Don Cheadle acting out an inebriated chick's take on the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Fans of "The Landlord" will enjoy "Space Baby," a parody of "Commando Cody"-type series in which a star-faring toddler rescues the likes of Fred Willard. Too many sketches rely on gratuitous gore and nudity for punchlines, however, while others feel like cheap imitations of "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job." Nevertheless, even a weak segment can feature a hilarious image, like a pair of President's Day costume mascots on stilts chasing down a boorish guy on the street. It's too soon to vote for the show to "Die," even though one's hand might be inching for the mouse.

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