If a series successfully and continuously draws in viewers, why break the chain and reimagine the formula? It seems as if the fourth season of “Drunk History” is working on reinventing itself — everything from tweaking its format to changing directions. But this new change might not be for the best. Although watching historical events unfold in the minds of a drunkard will always be worth our time, the theme of escape that the first episode presents may signify a greater shift to the stylistic approach that originally enticed viewers. As of now, it certainly looks as if “Drunk History” is attempting an escape from the late-night comedy scene.
“Drunk History” is one of the few shows on television that doesn’t have to work relatively hard for its audience’s attention. The previous three seasons all came from the same mold: get someone drunk and ask them to recount a major historical event. Up until now, episodes have flowed smoothly under this model and the direction of Derek Waters, drunkard and history enthusiast extraordinaire. However, there’s something different in this season’s approach, which is apparent from the overall monotony of the first episode. While the first story starts off on a good path and Chris Parnell (“Archer”) hilariously pulls off the third retelling, the middle is poorly executed, causing the episode to drag. It could be too early to pass judgment, but this sudden shift is worrying. A change in flow could suggest “Drunk History” is beginning to lose its edge.
Despite the flaws that riddled the season premiere, “Drunk History” remains relatively consistent in its storytelling. “Saturday Night Live” alum Parnell fuels the humor that’s expected from an episode of “Drunk History.” Recounting the story of Charles Joughin, a cook aboard the RMS Titanic who survived solely due to a whiskey addiction, seems fairly appropriate and fair game for a series about alcohol-induced retellings. Parnell’s mannerisms are uncanny and hit the sweet spot. From his alcohol use as the ship sinks into the depths of the North Atlantic to the oven that they place him in aboard the Carpathia, the third segment embodies the concept that “Drunk History” ultimately relies on. “He’s riding the stern down like an elevator and he just gracefully steps into the water,” recounts storyteller Doug Jones (“Parks and Recreation”). Same, Joughin. Same.
Using larger-scale events also gives the series a chance to play with their overly exaggerated special effects, which take form in a plastic Titanic ramming itself against a block of ice and a plastic house that sits atop a cliff in a Thomas Middleditch-led (“Silicon Valley”) retelling. These redeemable qualities burn bright and fast in the episode and are often tossed out over the drunken hiccupping that reminds viewers of the series’s premise. However, it is through these moments that “Drunk History” truly shines — the insignificant details, such as a case of beautiful butterflies and Joughin’s indifference over the most famous sinking in history. Even the quick switches between history lessons and the drunk encounters are often enough to produce some quick, throaty laughs. At the end of the episode, Waters and Jones jump in the bathtub together to test Joughin’s survival experience: ice, whiskey and all.