Flight of the Conchords

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10:30-11 p.m,, Sunday, June 17
HBO


HBO continues to flail around to find its comedy identity. It has the steadying influence of "Entourage," of course, as well as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (whenever Larry David gets around to putting a new season in the can). "Extras" also proved an inspired addition to its original lineup. Yet somehow, apart from "Sex and the City," the network's comedies inspire decidedly less buzz than do its dramas. And while there is a certain consistency of vision -- single camera, no laugh track, dry, subtle, eccentric -- the laugh quotient is pretty much all over the map. Which brings us to "Flight of the Conchords," which has its moments of wiggy charm but lacks an essential ingredient: star charisma. Its two leads, the New Zealand music-comedy duo of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, are deadpan and clever but so cloyingly doofy that they're not only tough to root for but difficult to watch for extended periods as well.

This last fact might well be a deal breaker given that they star in this new 12-episode summertime series, albeit one somewhat buried at 10:30 p.m. (though cushioned by its "Entourage" lead-in). In truth, the time period could help "Conchords" build buzz as an acquired taste. But I'll tell you the biggest problem with the first three episodes screened for review: Our slacker-nerd heroes are always sweating. You know that clammy sheen that sticks to you like a houseguest with space issues? Clement and McKenzie have it so consistently that it seems a purposeful visual conceit to help ratchet up the squirm factor -- a ratcheting we, in fact, hardly need.

The horn-rimmed Clement and grunge-infused McKenzie plopped onto the HBO radar while taking the HBO-run U.S. Comedy Arts Festival by storm in 2005, named Best Alternative Comedy Act then. The gimmick with "Flight of the Conchords" (the title also being the name of their comedy act) finds the boys struggling to make a name for themselves as transplanted New Zealanders living on New York's Lower East Side who seem to perform their folk parody act in their minds more than reality. They wait in vain for gigs that never come, whiling away their time by awkwardly chasing women and breaking into ridiculous song to express themselves more effectively. Sort of. The situations are absurd to the extreme, like Jemaine dating Bret's former girlfriend, or Jemaine deciding that a tape could be an adequate live performing replacement for his suddenly reluctant partner.

McKenzie and Clement also write the episodes (in tandem with director James Bobin) as well as co-produce, and the adaptation of their live show to a situation-comedy style is decidedly hit and miss. The incorporation of their music into the story lines proves the most entertaining element. Their mournful vibe is well-suited by the mocking tunes that also are surprisingly well-crafted, further fueling the satirical effect. But after the music stops, there isn't a whole lot going on here, funny or otherwise, and as the clock creeps toward 11 p.m. the promotion of such fragile comedic chemistry isn't going to keep viewers riveted.

Again, however, there are some nice touches in "Conchords." Those include the work of the supporting players, Rhys Darby (their dismissive manager, Murray) and Kristen Schaal (playing the boys' nerdy, inappropriately lovestruck and sole fan, Mel) as well as the boys' hangdog, often mumbly interplay as "New Zealand's 4th most popular folk parody duo." I just wish they didn't sweat so much. Ewww.

FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS
HBO
Dakota Pictures, Comedy Arts Studios and HBO
Credits:
Teleplay-creators: James Bobin, Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie
Executive producers: Stu Smiley, James Bobin, Troy Miller
Co-executive producers: Tracey Baird, Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie
Producers: Anna Dokoza, Christo Morse
Director: James Bobin
Director of photography: Patrick Stewart
Production designer: Christine Stocking
Costume designer: Rahel Afiley
Editor: Casey Brown
Casting: Cindy Tolan
Cast:
Jemaine: Jemaine Clement
Bret: Bret McKenzie
Coco: Sutton Foster
Mel: Kristen Schaal
Murray: Rhys Darby
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