In Season Five, ‘Key & Peele’ Pumps the Brakes
Last season, Key & Peele kicked off Season Four with new, True Detective-inspired credits, and even replaced the first three seasons’ interstitials — which had been Key and Peele introducing sketches with some semi-related bit of business in front of a live studio audience — with a riff on the HBO drama’s car banter. And in Season Five, they do that again. But True Detective Two: A Bunch More People, Even a Lady doesn’t even do this anymore.
Questions about Jordan and Keegan’s Neverending Ride include, “Are these bits pre-written or improvised while the director gives them prompts?,” “Where are they going?,” “Do they get filmed all in a row?,” “Does Peele want to drive?” and “Who is Woody, who is McConaughey?” But the biggest question is certainly “Why still?”
There’s kind of a lot of still in Key & Peele Season Five. This isn’t an entirely bad thing; they’ve built a dependably funny, solid show with characters people want to see. So we get all our favorites: in the first three episodes I can promise an anger translator Luther appearance, a football sketch, a Mee-gan interlude, and that dude with the hair hat and his buddy popping up on a plane, and some familiar pimps. And there are really well done new sketches too, including an opera of passive aggression where Peele as a flight attendant* battles passenger Key over the seat belt sign, and a take on no-spoiler culture made enjoyable by a decent button.
But Key & Peele has been incredibly sharp and incisive since 2012. They’ve tackled race and masculinity and American football and Obama and friendship and so much other stuff, and made them all seem fresh. Now they mostly seem to be taking the same paths up to the subjects they’ve already knocked down, and poking them gently.
Studies, or at least this one old article from Vocativ that I only read the headline of, say the ideal amount of time to stay on SNL is four years. Key & Peele isn’t SNL, but the intensity of having your own Comedy Central sketch show is probably about the same, all things being relative. Kroll Show ended after three years, and it would be hard to imagine that soon-to-be movie star Amy Schumer will keep her show much past season four (How will she top season three? The think pieces are coming, and they will be horrible, and one might be by me, sorry in advance). A comedic partnership this fruitful might have an expiration date, too. You can win so much that you start to lose.
The possible dissolution of the Key and Peele partnership was hinted at in Zadie Smith’s piece about the duo for the New Yorker last year. While delving in the pair’s amazing ability to transform themselves, she also implied that the formulaic nature of the show, and the focus on virality, was sapping the creativity. “There were moments on set when it felt as if they wanted something new thrown at them,” Smith wrote, saying that on set, they seemed “bored.” This feeling comes through on screen in season five.
Key & Peele seems a little ti-ti. Like maybe the stars and writers and director are all just a mite sleeeeeeeepy. Not full-blown tired or exhausted or heaven forfend dead, there’s still life in there — just ready for a bit of a nap. The energy, the new ideas, and the enthusiasm that ignited prior seasons isn’t there.
It could be because a lot in the news isn’t particularly funny. They try with a sketch about a white police officer who shoots black dudes holding everything from popsicles to big fuzzy giraffes, but the sketch never amps up, because every beat is telegraphed. If this is a meta-commentary on how entirely predictable cops shooting black men has become, then, well, okay, bravo. But these guys created the White Boy hoodie. That wasn’t based on anything funny at all, and it was great. And while Obama is proving himself to not be a lame duck, over at Key & Peele, no one seems interested in going hard. Even Luther is cowed by Hillary’s anger translator, Savannah (The Comedians and MADtv’s Stephnie Weir). They seem to lack fight.
Their exhaustion stems to new topics too. In the season premiere, K&P tackled feminism to which I say: hey guys, it’s okay, you just don’t have to. The sketch, wherein a crew of pirates sing not-just-not-sexist-but-actively-progressive sea shanties, seemed to lack a driving force. Why pirates? Just because why not? It was silly, and silly might be the best take for dudes on feminism, but it just felt like it fell short in conception and execution, the two areas in which Key & Peele most shines. And the intro, where Peele describes himself as a male feminist and then goes on to describe women in hyper-sexualized fruit-based language, is all meant in good fun, sure, and it’s not actually offensive, fine, but it’s so old. It’s the lowest rung, the obvious punchline. It’s the a number one joke some random dude makes when he finds out his first date is a feminist. And then he’ll expect her to stand there smiling wanly at that tired shit because he said he was trying.
But we already know Key & Peele is much better at gender politics than this. Season One’s “I Said B*tch” is a perfect microcosm of the way people try to present themselves inside and outside of relationships. And hell, they created Mee-gan, the entitled white girl inside (and, for some of us, on the outside of) all of us. They do better in the second episode of the new season with a sketch talking periods (always more period jokes, everyone, because periods are hilarious and that is a fact. Anyone who gets squeamish about period jokes should have to re-hear every poop joke they’ve ever laughed at), but the lackluster pirate effort was especially disappointing to watch in a season opener.
Even the sketches I praised earlier, the subtly-horrific flight attendant and the no-spoiler madness, are sketches about the cah-razy world of airplane travel and what the deal is with our TV watching habits. They’re New Yorker cartoons; they’re only skimming the surface.
Key & Peele don’t have to do it all. They don’t have to break new ground, or find a way to cover the emergence of trans rites or nail a Ted Cruz impression, or scrap all their characters and start again. It would just be nice to see them excited.
*On second thought, have we seen that character before?