Sunday, August 22, 2010

On DVD: "Flight of the Conchords: The Complete Collection"

It would be easy to intellectualize praise for the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, to rattle on about its surrealist tendencies and meta-musical commentary and timely point-of-view, but that's all secondary. No one would care about the series were it not for the fact that it's just plain funny--an ingenious mixture of arid-dry dialogue wit and uproarious musical parody. Stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie created and wrote much of the series (with James Bobin) in an inclusive comic style that swings from broad to microscopic; when it began, it seemed a rather obvious attempt by HBO to recapture the magic of the short-lived Tenacious D series, but quickly established itself as its own, unique beast.

Jemaine and Bret are a New Zealand folk-rock parody duo, sharing a one-bedroom apartment in New York's Chinatown, dreaming of making it big. Their manager Murray (Rhys Darby), who works for the New Zealand Consulate, seems singularly ill-equipped to make that happen--their (very) occasional gigs aren't doing much to extend their fan base, which is exactly one person strong. Mel (Kristen Schaal), their single fan, is plenty enthusiastic, though her broad sexual overtures seem to make Jemaine and Bret about as uncomfortable as they do her husband Doug (David Constabile). There's a confident but clueless buddy (Arj Barker), an oddball landlord (Eugene Mirman), and Murray's put-upon assistant (Frank Wood)--all the ingredients of a formula comedy, but with the timing and perspective just a bit askew, adding up to a kind of absurdist riff on the conventional sitcom.

And then there are the musical numbers, The boys are seldom seen actually gigging--they're never quite as good onstage as they are in their fantasies, which are elaborate production numbers in a wide range of musical and visual styles. The lyrics are amusing ("You're so beautiful/You could be a part-time model"), and the scope of their musical abilities is mighty impressive; they move easily from a hip-hop battle jam ("Hiphopapotamus vs. Rhymenoceros") to Beatles-style psychadelica ("The Prince of Parties") to 80s power pop ("Love is a Weapon of Choice") to lounge ("Mermaid") to a hysterical married-people sex jam ("Business Time"). The songs are played like inner monologues for the low-key, typically inexpressive leads; as in post-modern musical films like Chicago, they express themselves in lavish production numbers that happen only inside their heads. The visual accompaniment is similarly on-target, with the show's directors (including writers Bobin and Taika Waititi and Mr. Show/Tenacious D alum Troy Miller) impressively parroting music video styles and devising ingenious ways to keep the music segments fresh. "Love is a Weapon of Choice" matches its 80s sound with a Russell Mulcahy-style doves-and-smoke visual motif, the wistful ballad "Cheer Up, Murray" is done with a cheesy photo album/scrapbook look, and "Hurt Feelings" is done as a sly jab at the "Wise Up" scene in Magnolia. Some of the musical sequences (like the nautical number in the last episode) are more peculiar than genuinely funny, but they hit far more often than they miss.

Clement and McKenzie are superb anchors for the series, grounding the often goofy situations with their hilariously flat line readings and sharp underplaying. The show has a roll-with-the-punches, improvisational quality, but that's somewhat deceptive; the scripts are actually quite tight, from a structural standpoint (watch how expertly they build the tour episode in season one, or the season two show when Jemaine falls for an Australian). Darby's energetic portrayal of manager Murray is an effective counterbalance to their low-key work, and his "band meetings" (which open several episodes) are a frequent highlight. Schaal, familiar from The Daily Show, is a cheerily balls-out performer; as the wildly inappropriate superfan, she's got no fear and no vanity (at least not if there's laughs to be had). Barker's Dave grows slowly funnier over the show's run, though the brilliant Mirman is underused as the landlord (he's got a couple of good, oddball moments though, including his dismissal of a fix-it job: "The sink works... it just comes out at a different place"). And the guest performers list is like a roll-call of comic MVPs: John Hodgman, Aziz Ansari, Will Forte, Demetri Martin, and Todd Barry (in fine form as the smug "Third Conchord") pop up in season one, while Jim Gaffigan, Kristen Wiig, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and the great Patton Oswalt (perfectly cast as an Elton John impersonator) make season two appearances.

Flight of the Conchords ran a too-brief 22 episodes (12 shows in season one, 10 in season two), and will not be back, per Clement and McKenzie's wishes (and their bittersweet ending). But the short run may well have been for the best--the show's specific blend of acerbic wit, running gags, and melodious spoofs could easily have degenerated into the kind of formula comedy the remaining episodes contrast so sharply. As it stands, it's a relentless clever and endlessly entertaining series that should hold up well to repeat viewings by its cult following.

"Flight of the Conchords: The Complete Collection" hits DVD on Tuesday, August 24th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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