Netflix’s ‘The Characters’ Is All Over the Map, Just as Intended

The beauty of Netflix is that there is something for everyone, even within the streaming site’s original series. Political thrillers, depressing animated comedies, nostalgic sequels, comic book adaptations, and so on. Netflix seems to be interested in picking up whatever sounds vaguely interesting or money-making, throwing it at the wall, and seeing what sticks (without actually ever revealing how much it sticks). The result is a mixed bag of tricks for a variety of different tastes, and a slate that is wildly inconsistent. Netflix’s newest comedy, The Characters, seems to function almost as a microcosm of the streaming service.

Netflix Presents The Characters is, without a doubt, one of the most intriguing originals the site has produced in a while. In the series, eight comedians are each given a separate 30-minute episode to do with whatever they please. It’s a smart idea: letting a bunch of funny people run wild with sketches–— on a platform that censors significantly less than NBC or even Comedy Central — and switching it up episode to episode, meaning you can play roulette with the series instead of sticking to a serialized narrative.

However, like Netflix’s slate itself, the overall results of The Characters are scattered and inconsistent. Of the four episodes that were made available to critics, none are particularly bad but some are just a little… blah, for lack of a better word. The sketches, the punchlines, the musical bits all vary wildly from episode to episode, making it a rollercoaster of quality and an overall odd viewing experience. These variations are a good thing, though, because it means that The Characters is a comedy series that offers humor for everyone. If you don’t like one episode, skip to the next. For example, the first episode, from comedian John Early, wasn’t really my thing. The jokes were there — the cringe humor while a man toasts his fiancee and glares at guests who have the audacity to cough or refill their wine glass; a woman struggling to get her delivery right during take after take — and surely someone will love them, but that someone wasn’t me.

The next episode, from former Saturday Night Live writer Natasha Rothwell, was much more my speed. The episode features Rothwell playing a variety of characters in smart sketches ranging from a doctor treating white woman with “chiggers” in an ongoing, increasingly hilarious bit of wordplay to a particularly inspired sketch about a homeless person — who spends all of their time at the library — threatening to spoil Game of Thrones for subway riders if they don’t offer up money. The rest of the sketches are also funny, including a “basic bitch” banger that will be stuck in your head for weeks.

The strength of The Characters is found within the different approaches that each comedian takes for their individual episode. Because there are no real rules here, no plot to stick to, and no set characters, each comedian is allowed to run wild with their 30 minutes. This results in sketches that are fully fleshed out — such as Lauren Lapkus’s (Orange is the New Black) various characters that build their own cohesive narrative — or sketches that feel like they were found crumpled up in a wastebasket — such as Tim Robinson’s (Saturday Night Live) Tampa Bay Wrestling sketch, a delightfully weird and low-key funny bit of VHS humor surrounding a really, really bad wrestler.

Lauren Lapkus’s episode was a strong highlight of the four previewed. It had an undeniable Kroll Show vibe to it, with her spoofing reality television (admittedly, Bachelor/ette parodies may have run their course by now but Lapkus’ attention to peculiar details — the men barking like dogs whenever a doorbell is heard — might just revive the mini-genre) and having multiple characters recur throughout the half-hour, invading each other’s stories and overlapping sketches. (Some of the other episodes employ this, too, but Lapkus’s has the most natural feel.) 

Because of the various comedians and their individual styles (Early is more polished and theatrical, Robinson is haphazard and eccentric, Rothwell is more socially conscious, and Lapkus most resembles a Comedy Central-ready sketch program), The Characters manages to be a great representation of the massive world of sketch comedy. The genre has had somewhat of a resurgence in the last few years thanks to gems like Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele, re-introducing the genre to masses who aren’t really “in” the comedy world. That’s the aim of The Characters, too: putting such a strange little sketch show on Netflix, in between House of Cards and Daredevil, reflects the renewed popularity of sketch comedy. The inconsistency of the show changing from episode to episode may take a while to get used to but at least it’s never tiring. Plus, because it’s so different, it offers a million chances for new sketch fans to find what they like.

Netflix Presents The Characters is as inconsistent and eccentric as Netflix as a whole, but that’s what makes it so watchable. It’s the sort of show where you’ll check out one episode and find yourself absently watching the rest, knowing that if you don’t like one sketch or one comedian, you can just wait a few minutes until something different pops up. Watching the four episodes back to back was a fascinating study in the different elements of humor, and proof positive that all comedy is subjective. No matter what you’re into, there’s something there for you.

Pilot Viruet is yet another freelance writer living in New York City, killing time by watching television and yelling on Twitter.

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