Netflix Presents The Characters: Season One(?)
For Netflix’s first original exclusive sketch comedy program, The Characters, the opening segments remain the same — a Birdman style stroll through a random backstage. It’s what ensues after we peer into the dressing rooms for the eight individual performers — each with their own episode — that constantly changes on this ambitious, adventurous, and mostly successful sketch show.
It was released a month ago, but has floated a bit under the radar. Most of the actors are at least vaguely familiar — especially if you closely follow comedy. Lauren Lapkus is one of the captains of the podcast world with her oddball characters like petulant teen Todd (featured here) and naughty elf Ho Ho. You may recognize Paul W. Downs from Broad City as Abbi’s perky geek-bro boss Trey. Tim Robinson spent a short stint as a featured SNL player — including an appearance opposite host Kevin Hart in one of my personal fave sketches — before retreating to the writers’ room.
Each comic is given a ton of freedom — with seemingly the only constant being they have to perform as three or more characters — and part of the joy of this experiment is the vastly different formats. Lapkus dances her characters in and out of interconnected scenes Mr. Show-style, while veteran performance artist Dr. Brown changes in and out of various costumes as he recreates the same interaction with various locals on a city block in one continuously shot fever dream. Each is absorbingly trippy and wonderful in its own way — although the Lapkus concoction is more straight-up funny.
Not too surprisingly, it’s the SNL alum whose episodes are most complete and consistently funny. Robinson is the only one to completely eschew the notion of connecting the bits, providing six distinct sketches with no particular thread between them, save for an essential (relatable) pathos defining his characters. Each segment has a powerful center, from the confident Rat Pack-esque swinger whose musical hold over a casino is broken in insane and extreme ways the minute he loses a game, to the sad sack office worker who takes his cool boss’ pranks in the most optimistic and literal manner.
Meanwhile, SNL writer Natasha Rothwell excels with an intelligence and a willingness to play broad as she creates a universe with an exaggerated self at the center. Her standouts include a sophisticated subway panhandler whose fundraising strategy is based on TV spoilers and an overgrown kid who solves all the emotional problems of her mother’s office colleagues.
There is the occasional clunker, mainly the overly vulgar and silly offering from Henry Zebrowski, but every comic has moments of genius. Kate Berlant creates an ambitious semi-mockumentary centered on a dizzy sculptural genius whose greatest moment comes when shechortles at another of her characters — a manic pixie YouTube star (think Grace Helbig) who marvels at everything in popular slang (“that’s not a thing”). Downs throws his all into a blind policeman on a Segway and an overenthusiastic redneck cable host.
Total Binge Time: 3 hours
Binge Sittings: 1
Best Episodes: “Lauren Lapkus” “Natasha Rothwell” “Tim Robinson”
Watch The Characters on Netflix here.