Upon the release of W/ Bob and David, Netflix’s four-episode re-teaming of Mr. Show masterminds David Cross and Bob Odenkirk last Friday, the series was met with a hearty mix of nostalgic praise and general indifference, with one Variety critic deeming the short run of new sketches a TV event that “no one really needed.” That, without question, is one of the laziest ways to summarize the return of one of the most beloved and influential comedy teams to come out of the 1990s, giving far more insight into the reviewer’s general disinterest in the series and subject matter than any of the few dozen sketches that Odenkirk and Cross put together for this limited series.
What, exactly, is needed on television or, for that matter, Netflix? Did we need a spin-off series based on Breaking Bad‘s prominent sleaze-ball lawyer? Was that necessary? Of course not, but Better Call Saul, which also stars the great Odenkirk, is as behaviorally acute and emotionally effective as modern television gets. In contrast, W/ Bob and David is primarily about yucks, and delivers them (for the most part) in the same wry, sardonic, and subtly outraged style that the Mr. Show team — which also includes Paul F. Thompkins, Brian Posehn, Jay Johnston, and Jill Talley – honed during their run on HBO. In an Episode 3 sketch, for instance, they lampoon the attempt by white, male leftists to impart safety and law advice to people who are illegally pulled-over and searched, the majority of whom will almost certainly be African-American. Earlier in the series, the team juxtaposes the hardships of changing personal preferences — in this case, eating red meat — with the relative ease of professional advancement, even when such goals include becoming a major Hollywood director.
Of course, the sketches are imbued with the absurd, allowing Cross, Odenkirk, and their comrades to both voice their hugely understandable skepticism about a certain strain of societal behavior, and the embarrassing falseness of political correctness, while also openly expressing the inherent silliness of their endeavors. At one point, they poke fun at the backstories that are often stressed in competition shows, and how the competition is as much about how much human suffering each contestant has gone through as it is about skill. It’s not all that creative of a target, but its in the way Odenkirk, playing the most desperate contestant, underlines the flagrant and deeply manipulative cheapness of such shows that makes the laughs stick. That the show asks the contestants to make a dish out of two small glasses of water and a chunk of shark meat both renders the idea foolish and further undercuts the idea that these shows are about inventiveness and ability.
As the Variety review points out, the intervening years between when Mr. Show ended and where W/ Bob and David started up have seen an influx of pretenders to the throne, a handful of which, including Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and Comedy Bang Bang, have ended up being quite fruitful. If the intimation is that Cross and Odenkirk are old news in a vibrant era for comedy on television and streaming services, it’s a false one. There’s little of W/ Bob and David‘s conversational focus and consistent sense of sly surreality even in programs as astoundingly creative as Key & Peele. The way that each episode is written and edited to seamlessly connect each sketch to the next, in one way or another, suggests a full, off-kilter vision of the world that’s equal parts cynical and fervently alive with antic thought. As such, W/ Bob and David expresses an enveloping and endearingly madcap vision of the world, and a welcome return of two distinctly hilarious perspectives, whether they’re “needed” or not.