Review: Russell Brand Brings His Manic Genius to FX's 'BrandX'
The comic can't be contained to 22 minutes, but viewers should give him a chance in late night.
It’s impossible to accurately review an on-the-fly late-night show like FX’s BrandX With Russell Brand after watching the 22-minute first episode (which airs at 11 p.m. Thursdays starting tonight). But one thing is pretty obvious: If you like Brand, you’ll love BrandX, but you might be left wanting.
The weekly foray into late night is a welcome idea for FX, but it might have miscalculated on the half-hour length, which seems too truncated for a show of this kind and might be grumblesome to Brand fans.
The question for FX, of course, is what about the people who might have never heard of him or maybe have heard of him only via his ex-wife Katy Perry? What about people who don’t really like him but don't actively loathe him? Selling a personality, especially one as electrified as Brand, is a lot harder than selling a show about something. In this case, Brand is the show.
In some way, then, this review -- endorsement? -- is for people who haven’t made up their minds about Brand and thus are wondering about tuning in to BrandX tonight.
Strip away the movies you might not have liked, strip away the tabloid coverage, etc., and judge Brand on his talent, smarts and humor, which combine into nothing less than a tour de force of brilliance when he’s on -- and he always seems to be on. Comedy is subjective, of course, but BrandX is ostensibly an exercise in Brand riffing on the news (which is why FX couldn’t send out more episodes; it tapes Brand on the road wherever he goes and makes the turnaround almost instant so that week’s topics are relevant and timely). To watch him riff is what makes him so magnetic. He’s intelligent without hitting you over the head with it and clearly unafraid to take a subject – like spirituality, the essence of tonight’s premiere – and run with it even if his audience might have chosen something more in the pop culture milieu.
He takes the manic energy of Robin Williams and turns it into something more modern, less shtick-heavy, with characters making funny voices (his own voice is funny enough in its high-pitchiness), then straps it to a rocket and hits hyperspace. Sometimes the point or the joke is not what Brand ultimately concludes with; it’s the journey to get there. And in BrandX he’s able to use his being British as a kind of Brother From Another Planet conceit where he tries to understand what Americans are about and into, while also delivering gibes at both cultures. (Brand will use the stoic and serious Matt Stoller, a former Congressional policy adviser and Harvard grad, as “a political, economic and historical consultant.”) Stoller is less co-host or foil than a guy who takes computer polls, flashes news photos and clips on the screen and is the calm to Brand’s British storm.
BrandX could look completely different in a few weeks -- who knows? -- but the core of the show is Brand’s personality and style, which is unlikely to change, and you can sample it pretty accurately tonight. The premiere is a good start because Brand – almost against type, or at least what some might think is counterintuitive to his nature – discusses his visit with the Dalai Lama (and how the tabloids twisted the news of it) and delves very deeply into spirituality and religion.
It’s not every day that a comedian who is often mistakenly thought of as silly or juvenile by the people who don’t know him can use humor and intelligence to probe that kind of subject (nor is it every day that a comic references Friedrich Nietzsche with an accurate understanding of the philosopher’s beliefs). When the subject looks like it might be getting a little too nebulously conceptual for the audience, Brand wades into the crowd and talks with them. (Part of the setup to BrandX is that there will be insta-polls from the wired audience, written responses to questions, etc., with the room small enough for him to wander around and seek out the people who said interesting -- or bizarre -- things). For example, 92 percent of the audience in the premiere said they’d want to spend a day with the Dalai Lama, but clearly Brand wanted to understand what the other 8 percent were thinking.
If there’s a potential flaw in BrandX it’s that the half-hour format could be constraining. It’s almost impossible to quote Brand because he talks in nearly nonstop, tangential riffs at great speed. The audience interaction part could thus be hindered when a longer discussion might lead to even more focused Brand riffs. But the time just zooms (and his brain works in such a way that when a thought enters his head it seems to zing or pinball around, igniting a multitude of responses that he has to blurt out immediately to keep pace with). It’s not a trait that’s easy to wedge into 22 minutes.
As an example, consider this response Brand gave when he (and producer-director Troy Miller) met TV critics back in January and he was asked whether, in addition to reflecting on the news, he would be addressing himself:
“Potentially at the risk of plunging myself into a post-structuralist, post-modern vortex, I could analyze myself while I was doing it or if I did something newsworthy during the show. Now, I think it’s an interesting question that you ask because I think that what this show is, both in its presentational style in the manner that Troy will be producing it and in terms of the content, it’s about authenticity. We live in a time where we’re stupefied by plasticity, where we have this toxic sequined wave of vapid culture polluting our minds, denigrating our consciousness, detracting us and removing us from our spirituality. So gossip-based stories would have less value other than in an analytical context. You know, it’s not about I don’t want to further celebrate the overly elaborate brittle plastic structures of nonsense that are constantly fired into our minds to distract us from what’s really important. So like if I had done something actually newsworthy, in some bizarre world, then I would cover it. But if it was just more lacquered nonsense designed to distract us from truth, then I would wisely ignore it.”
Whether you like him or not, there’s certainly some genius to the man, and with any luck, BrandX will be able to make that clear while making you laugh as well.
Host-writer: Russell Brand
Consultant: Matt Stoller
Executive producers: Russell Brand, Troy Miller, Nik Linnen