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From Portlandia to Maron to the recent Documentary Now!, IFC’s strategy of giving quirky comedic voices seemingly boundless creative freedom has yielded some solid critical success, but decidedly mixed popular support.
The channel’s two latest originals, Benders and Gigi Does It, arrive on Thursday night, and while neither seems likely to be a breakout with audiences, there’s at least some potential quality to these high- and low-concept polar opposites.
Hailing from the high-concept side of the ledger is Gigi Does It, which will air in the 10:30 p.m. half-hour. Serving as an object lesson on what a solid character actor will resort to doing if he’s only getting offers like CBS’ Partners, Gigi stars David Krumholtz as Gigi Rotblum, a 76-year-old Jewish grandmother living in Boca Raton and navigating the world with her male nurse, Ricky (Ricky Mabe), and a multimillion-dollar inheritance in her pocket.
If you just accept Gigi Does It as a dare between Krumholtz and showrunner Tim Gibbons, it’s reasonably effective. With the help of Tony Gardner, part of the makeup team that allowed us eternally to refer to Bad Grandpa as “Oscar nominee,” Krumholtz’s transformation is reasonably convincing, if you hold him to a Mrs. Doubtfire standard. Certainly the facial prosthetic work is reasonably expressive, and when Krumholtz wants to put Gigi into amusing physical circumstances, she seems mobile. But merely placing a young person in slabs of age-enhancing rubber and dropping him into an unsuspecting world wasn’t all Johnny Knoxville did in Bad Grandpa, and figuring out that next step is where the Gigi writers are having trouble.
Gigi’s unapologetic lewdness is so unrelenting that it takes the edge off of anything she might do to drive the stories along. After the third or fourth or fifth joke about Gigi’s vagina, the idea that Gigi would contemplate posing nude for an artist doesn’t feel all that extreme, especially with the awareness that very little of the flesh Gigi could expose would be her own. Actually, returns for geriatric gynecological humor are probably generally diminishing.
And even if Gigi were mining more aggressive territory, it’s still just a melding of several established genres. Gigi waving a gun around for her own protection just evokes memories of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot or a lesser entry in the Big Momma franchise, rather than yielding any new frisson of its own. It’s not enough to say that Krumholtz is a more convincing elderly woman than Martin Lawrence — though he is.
If IFC were to give David Krumholtz a talk show or his own variety series, the Gigi character might work for five minutes per week interacting with unsuspecting citizens. But stretched to 22 minutes per week, even those candid-camera moments don’t generate sufficiently passionate reactions. Krumholtz and Mabe both are giving their all, but there isn’t much of a series here beyond the concept.
In contrast, Benders isn’t going to entice viewers with its enticing premise — a contrast, only assuming that you find Krumholtz in bubbie drag to be enticing. Created by Jim Serpico and Tom Sellitti and executive produced by longtime collaborator Denis Leary, Benders is amiably formless. It’s just the story of a group of goofy buddies who share a love for their semicompetitive recreational hockey team, The Chubbys. They spend their time between shifts gabbing and their time between games drinking, but almost no time actually on the ice, if you’re puck-averse.
There’s a lot of dudes-being-dudes banter, without any “Bro is me” self-pity that sometimes can bog the genre down. Led by Chris Distefano, Mark Gessner, Ruy Iskandar and Andrew Schulz, the cast has an easy rapport that carries Benders along even if, after three episodes, I can’t quite isolate distinguishing characteristics for all of the guys. Schulz’s Paul emerges as something of a centerpiece because of the presence of wife Karen (Lindsey Broad, a spirited piece of the show even if she hasn’t been integrated into the ensemble all that well), which gives him a hockey life and a domestic perspective.
A brigade of Northeastern supporting actors already are finding opportunities on Benders, with Mark Margolis and Lenny Venito offering highlights in the first episode and Steve Schirripa, Jim Norton, Robert Kelly and Jim Breuer lined up for later in the season. There’s an encouraging sense that if Benders sticks around long enough, any actor who appeared on The Sopranos, Rescue Me or Louie could be in play.
Surplus of testosterone aside, the writers keep the subject matter varied, covering twisted takes on assisted suicide, faith-based sports participation and horse breeding. Male-driven buddy comedies aren’t in short supply, but after the cancellation of the Leary-produced Sirens and the upcoming ending of The League, there could be an appetite for this kind of loose repartee and an upside for the up-and-coming young stars.
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