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Maybe it’s just the amount of time I spend watching TV news or extended HBO documentaries — three docs built around footage from the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection and we haven’t even hit the one-year anniversary — but I’ve reached the point where even a casual mention of the “Deep State” causes me to wince. It’s the sort of generally meaningless conspiracy theorizing that might have gotten you laughed out of a serious room five years ago, but has now been used as a justification for real-world violence and social unrest.
In Netflix’s new animated comedy Inside Job, the Deep State is played for laughs, with fitful results. I can see a certain power in reclaiming the ridiculousness of the Deep State, of taking it out of the realm of legitimate conversation and putting it back into context with mole-men, moth-men and gigantic sentient fungi. Of course, isn’t that exactly what a real Deep State would probably want to do if it actually existed?
Created by Shion Takeuchi and executive produced by Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch, Inside Job has a lot of energy — too much energy, I often felt — and a near-infinite number of potential storylines to mine. But through 10 episodes, it’s still struggling to define its supporting characters and its best episodes just happen to be the ones that stray furthest from the core premise. Or at least those episodes are the ones that made me wince less?
Our heroine is Reagan Ridley (Lizzy Caplan), a tech genius working at Cognito Inc., the public-facing company secretly orchestrating many of the world’s darkest conspiracies on behalf of a group of shadowy overlords. The daughter of former Cognito bigwig Rand (Christian Slater), Reagan is brilliant, profane — the show is surely not for the kiddies — socially awkward and bent on world domination. But when it comes time for her to get a big promotion, she has to share the job with Brett (Clark Duke), a completely unqualified yes-man.
A poster boy for white male privilege, Brett is actually fairly well-meaning, which immediately causes Reagan’s co-workers — gossipy Gigi (Tisha Campbell), man-dolphin hybrid Glenn (John DiMaggio), jerky mushroom Myc (Brett Gelman) and drug-addled Dr. Andre (Bobby Lee) — to prefer him.
Voiced with trademark tartness by Caplan, Reagan is an unapologetically prickly centerpiece for the show, though it’s bizarre how frequently the series takes the things that could be interesting or unique about the character and reduces them to daddy issues tied to the one-note, grating Rand. I was particularly perplexed when a whole episode seemingly built to an Asperger’s diagnosis, a totally worthwhile thing to delve into in an adult cartoon, and then disappointed when it became a “Yeah, daddy issues again” shrug.
Maybe if Rand weren’t such a predictably dull, egomaniacal character I wouldn’t have minded seeing Reagan’s psychology tethered so completely and unimaginatively to him. You’re a show with Sasquatches, literal sheeple and celebrity clones and yet your creativity surrounding a difficult woman gets stuck in this rudimentary first gear?
Most of the supporting characters haven’t found that additional step from quirky to appealingly funny either. Andre, Gigi and Myc remain formulaically odd space-fillers with no real comic voices to speak of, especially annoying when you have vocal talent like Gelman, who couldn’t give a boring line-reading if he tried. Even if Glenn is basically just Futurama‘s DiMaggio working in Bender-adjacent voice mode, the character is grotesque enough to get laughs, especially in one above-average episode in which he and Brett engage in Face/Off-related hijinks.
And yes, the episode references Face/Off in very specific terms, just as almost everything in Inside Job feels like it’s a direct reference to a movie, a TV show, a family conspiracy theory or to Netflix itself. It’s so hung-up on Easter eggs and in-jokes and screen-filling, pause-requiring visual gags that the show becomes exhausting at times, especially in the early episodes.
As Inside Job goes along and thankfully lets the team escape the bowels of Cognito, there are better stories in which the conspiracy-of-the-week is either an afterthought or simply an instigation for adventures that don’t mention the Deep State at all. It’s ironic that the season’s best episode focuses on a mission to a town trapped by an ’80s nostalgia chemical agent, a half-hour dedicated to countless nostalgic references and countless criticisms about how mind-numbing nostalgia is. But hey, funny is funny.
Inside Job continues an odd trend among Netflix animated comedies of starting with characters and situations in the most abrasive place possible and then attempting to evolve to someplace more affectionate and grounded by midseason. It was a tactic that didn’t work at all on Hoops and never found consistency Chicago Party Aunt; I’m not going to try explaining for the fiftieth time why F is for Family remains the difficult-to-achieve model for this sort of Netflix series.
Of course, there are general questions about what the Netflix animation department has learned from any of its successes or failures. This can be illustrated no more plainly than nobody considering whether or not having Caplan voice a character who is textually biracial was a good idea after the final season of BoJack Horseman discussed such things in very frank terms.
After a full season here, Brett is the only character in the ensemble who really has a fully believable arc and Reagan the only character whose lack of immediate likability is an asset and not a flaw. I found occasional things to laugh at and found affection for some of the storylines late in the season. I never fully signed on and never fully stopped wincing at “Deep State” references, but there are elements to be amused by if you don’t have the same visceral reaction to the pilot.
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