As far as character showcases go, it doesn't get much more elaborate than Kroll Show.
When Nick Kroll's sketch series on Comedy Central returned for its second season in January, it was clear that he had set his sights firmly on the pseudo-celebrity culture of reality television, with a lineup of characters inspired by the most despicable monsters that crawled out of the Jersey Shore and Real Housewives muck: the Guido womanizer Bobby Bottleservice, the psychopathic publicists of "PubLIZity," the man-child toilet-baby C-Czar, the self-destructively vain Rich Dicks, etc. But if the first season served to introduce the freakshow, the second season unleashed them out into the world… and onto each other. The result was a series of interweaving narratives within a rich, ever-expanding alternative reality TV universe, for which Kroll offered a term when he last spoke with us:
There’s a term that Seth Meyers coined when he did an interview with us, half-jokingly, but I think is very good, which is “sketch-uational comedy.” It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s actually a really good way, I think, to describe what we’re doing with the show, which is sketch but it’s really more narrative and long-form storytelling.
Nick Kroll's "sketch-uational comedy" is a breed all its own. A half-hour episode feels like watching a condensed, Mr. Hyde version of a primetime block on TLC or Bravo, with a barrage of reality programming segments, promos, title sequences, and commercials, broken up occasionally by Kroll riffing with one of his writers/co-stars — Jenny Slate, John Mulaney, Ron Funches, Chelsea Peretti, Joe Wengert — an improvement from the monologue rants of Season 1. Season 2 revolved around a half-dozen or so arcs: C-Czar's paternal education in "Dad Academy," Liz B.'s pregnancy (it's C-Czar's, of course), Dr. Armond's murder trial, "Wheels Ontario" star Bryan LaCroix's "NTR 2 Win" contest to lose his virginity, Bobby Bottleservice venturing into male prostitution in "Gigolo House," Ref Jeff's search for friendship, and the Rich Dicks, as always, partying and doing a lot of drugs. Beyond the usual suspects were some great new pieces: "Pawnsylvania," a Philly/Pittsburgh-based Pawn Stars send-up, halftime rocker Nash Ricky trying to reassemble his band Sloppy Secondz, and some hilarious one-off bits like "Cake Train" and "The Legend of Young Larry Bird." And of course, all of Kroll's buddies turned out in droves: Amy Poehler, John Mulaney, Jenny Slate, Seth Rogen, Pete Holmes, Zach Galifianakis, Bill Burr, Andy Milonakis, Jason Mantzoukas, Zach Woods, Carrie Brownstein, Marc Evan Jackson, Brian Huskey, Rebecca Drysdale, Jordan Peele, Brett Gelman, and several others. Mike Birbiglia was nowhere in sight, but a Katy Perry cameo was a suitable consolation, I suppose.
And yes, "Too Much Tuna" came back, and a little bit of mercury poisoning didn't slow down Gil and George's "prangkt-ing" one bit.
Perhaps the most fun part of the viewing experience of Season 2 was watching Kroll, Jon Daly, and his writers gradually weave all the threads together. The meta elements built slowly early in the season, with Mr. Show-style transitions, Easter egg jokes in lower thirds, and a wide-spanning, Stephen King universe of supporting characters, like Ron Funches as an easygoing defense attorney and Carrie Brownstein as a physician. With major characters increasingly venturing outside of their spheres — the stars of "Wheels Ontario" hosting a Canadian American Idol called "Show Us Your Songs Toronto," Dr. Armond and Funches guesting on "Dad Academy" — eventually the storylines collided in a season finale that impressively brought all the arcs to a close — at least, in the type of contrived, superficial climax that reality TV producers try to pass off as a kind of universal moral or lesson learned without really saying anything at all.
That is, of course, a weakness in Kroll Show — at least for viewers seeking a simpler, more variety-based sketch experience like SNL or Key & Peele. By entrenching itself so deeply in the dumbed-down storytelling, sugary editing, and larger-than-life personalities of reality programming, Kroll Show occasionally feels nearly as obnoxious as the real thing. It's obviously parody, but it's mercilessly accurate parody. If those Real Housewives screaming matches make your flesh crawl, there's a good chance the "PubLIZity" girls will too. But that unwavering commitment to its subject matter is ultimately Kroll's strength. It's great TV posing as awful TV. That clever masquerade may be lost on people watching clips of the show online, who hopefully at least appreciate Kroll's uncanny versatility. But because it's a show about how low the bar has sunk in cable television, Kroll Show really needs to be watched in its full half-hour form, on a television screen.
Nick Kroll finds himself in a crowded field of great alternative TV comedy these days, with Comedy Central alone also boasting the gold-standard Key & Peele, as well as innovative concepts like Nathan For You, Review, Inside Amy Schumer, and Broad City — not to mention the stellar Portlandia, Comedy Bang Bang, and The Birthday Boys on IFC. It used to be that if you wanted to do sketch on TV, you had to go through the SNL circuit. That's no longer the case, and it's giving opportunities for stars like Kroll to share his voice — or voices, rather — with us. Hopefully, Kroll Show season 3 will expand its freakshow universe to even greater depths. Given the current state of American television, that shouldn't be too difficult.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO Theater.