'Triumph's Summer Election Special 2016': TV Review
Robert Smigel's second Triumph special for Hulu is a funny hour, but not as great as the first.
Birthed on Late Night With Conan O'Brien as a nuisance for celebrities and civilians and pageant canines alike, Robert Smigel's Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog has seen an interesting evolution into a sitcom star on Adult Swim's The Jack and Triumph Show and, in this election season in which reporting from a cigar-chomping, heavily accented Yugoslavian Mountain Hound puppet barely even registers on the scale of absurdity, Triumph has become something of a truth-telling provocateur.
February's Triumph's Election Special 2016, Smigel's first Funny or Die affiliated special for Hulu, thrust Triumph into the realm of important punditry alongside John Oliver and Samantha Bee. It proved Triumph's substantive mettle, demonstrated that his gimmick is capable of sustaining a running time of nearly 90 minutes and picked up a well-deserved Emmy nomination for writing.
Triumph's Summer Election Special 2016, which premiered Thursday on Hulu, is shorter at 66 minutes and a generally less consistent special, boasting some segments that are sure to be buzzed-about classics, but falling really flat in other moments. In the balance, there's enough smart and funny material here to easily recommend spending an hour with Triumph, but it's not a recommendation with the same urgency as the spring special.
The difference and minor problem with Triumph's Summer Election Special can be summed up simply:
Coverage of the primaries was inherently heterogeneous. The late-night shows were all covering the primaries, but with as many as four Democrats and initially infinite Republicans visiting dozens of cities in multiple states, anybody with a comic perspective could latch onto the angle of their choice and in his initial special, Triumph certainly did. The fun of that special was seeing which candidates were desperate enough to give Triumph the time of day and the extremes he'd go to in order to get access.
Coverage of the conventions was far more homogenous. Everything was taking place in Cleveland or Philadelphia. Everything on the Republican side was about Donald Trump, while the Democrats at least had a schism with Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton fans, but at this point in the game, you already knew that Trump, Clinton and Sanders weren't going to give access to a 56-year-old comedian with his hand up the butt of a dog whose greatest enjoyment comes from finding things to poop on. At that point, then, Triumph is left on the outside of arenas harassing deluded Sanders devotees ("Bernie's like the Dave Matthews of politics — I can never hate him as much as I hate his fans") and goading Trump fans in essentially the same way that Bee, Oliver and Trevor Noah's correspondents were doing at the same time. Inside the venues, I imagine that delegates couldn't walk more than five feet without facing an ironic interview from a late-night show and although the ridiculousness of Smigel's situation and the sharpness of his writing will always make him/Triumph good at what he does, what he did was something we saw the other kids on the playground do three and four weeks ago. I find Triumph attempting to sneak onto the convention floor with the help of a fake Roger Ailes (or poorly disguised as Debbie Wasserman Schultz) vastly funnier than Stephen Colbert doing the same thing in his Hungry for Power Games character, but when the number of variations on a theme are this finite, currency becomes crucial and Triumph is behind the curve.
The convention-center reports with Triumph badgering civilians and glad-handing with the easily amused media are funny, and explain several background jokes from convention news coverage, but the freshest parts of Triumph's Summer Election Special are the segments that make no effort at direct topicality.
A focus group for real Trump supporters offering their opinions on decidedly not-real Trump advertising campaigns is scathing and illuminating, even if it's just a variation on the "What are these people thinking?" focus groups that nearly all of the late-night hosts have done in recent months. It's eerily plausible and I even felt a odd beat of emotion when Smigel called the group, as Trump, to thank them.
I also laughed at the Philadelphia field piece in which Triumph recruits a former sitcom semi-star to serve as a Ben Franklin impersonator and then plays Cyrano to coach this ill-informed Ben through a tour of the city.
Other segments don't work as well. The special is framed with an eight-person panel discussion in front of a studio audience, in which you can almost see Triumph realizing that you aren't going to get substance or intentional humor when you fill seats with people like Ben "The Dell Dude" Curtis and frequent Triumph cohort Blackwolf the Dragonmaster. Barney Frank, a man surely capable of being hilarious and also perceptive given the right opportunities, is pushed into a position where he's scrambling to maintain any dignity, while several of the other panelists either don't talk at all or contribute little. The panel was obviously filmed well after both conventions and nobody knows exactly what they're supposed to be commenting on anymore. A closing bit in which Smigel drives through economically disadvantaged areas of Cleveland in a tank pretending to be Trump probably seemed like a good idea at the time, didn't quite congeal, but made the cut for the special to get it over an hour.
The first of the Triumph Hulu specials felt like it came together as a unit, as almost a documentary about a strange journalist trying to chronicle even stranger politicians running for the highest office in the land in one of the strangest moments in American history. Triumph's Summer Election Special feels like a clip show of late-night appearances by a character who I still think hits more often than he misses. That's not bad.