“The Characters” is exactly what it sounds like: a seemingly never-ending string of wholly inconceivable characters brought to life under outlandish circumstances. The new sketch series highlights the talent and edge of eight up-and-coming comedians by giving them free reign to write and perform whatever they want in 30 minutes. Each comedian acts out an array of characters confined to an episode, ranging from quirky individuals to exaggerated tropes.
In one episode Lauren Lapkus (“Orange Is The New Black”) fluidly transitions from a pop diva searching for love on a “Bachelor”-esque reality show to an insolent teenage boy clashing with his mom. Though the premise of the reality show frames the episode and makes for a humorous parody, Lapkus’s personification of the washed-out, overly made-up celebrity is quite hollow. Not only is her bright orange face (a cross between a certain presidential candidate and someone from the cast of “Jersey Shore”) distracting, but her performance is painful to watch. From the nasal giggles to the lines screeched out at the show’s contestants (all named Ben), I couldn’t wait for the episode to be over.
Despite the reliance on heavy makeup and the hackneyed performance, Lapkus’s style marks the episode as distinctly hers. The type of characters enacted are thematically dramatized stereotypes of their real-life counterparts, and her use of detail — even in the blatant advertising spoof suggestive of the advertising used on real-life dating shows like “The Bachelor” — lend the episode cohesion and style. Otherwise, the series of sketches would be a jumbled mess of ideas haphazardly brought to life.
Lapkus’s episode is one of the few containing this feeling of cohesion. With a single mind acting as the force behind each episode, you would expect there to be an inherent coherence. However, the opposite is often the case. Many of the episodes feel like their creators tried to do too much with the short time they were allotted. John Early’s (“Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp”) episode is not only difficult to follow, but his tense performance imparts the episode with a sense of chaos that renders his characters unconvincing. However, with eight different comedians given the the kind of freedom they have by Netflix, there are bound to be some that stand out more than others.
Henry Zebrowski (“Dirty Grandpa”) is one of these, bringing a burst of energy following Early’s episode in his run in with an ignorant passerby at a food cart. After reprimanding an oblivious man who mistakes him for Jim Gaffigan by charging him for a signature, then throwing the money in the bewildered man’s face, he lectures him, saying “Wear better shoes before talking to a celebrity.” This small piece of arbitrary wisdom is emblematic of Zebrowski’s biting style.
Moments like these highlight the individuality that marks each comedian’s writing and acting. Zebrowski’s superficial arrogance makes his shrewdly delivered lines even more hilarious, while Natasha Rothwell’s (Writer, “Saturday Night Live”) masterfully diverse slate of performances makes her a standout in the series.
Though a breath of fresh air for Netflix’s comedy category, the series begs the question of whether a single comedic mind and presence can sustain an entire episode in the sketch format without losing the audience’s interest. In their efforts to personify the extreme characters they’ve written, the show’s comedic cast shed their inhibitions and infuse the series with panache. And though well-produced, the show’s sketches lack the narrative cohesion desired in an eight-part series.
It’s eccentric and it’s fresh, but it’s exactly “Saturday Night Live.” It’s a bunch of comedians given the chance to show what they’re made of, and though they’re having fun doing it, the audience isn’t guaranteed the same feeling.