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The first time Bumper Allen (Adam Devine) meets music producer Thea (Lera Abova) in Peacock’s Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin, she’s skeptical about his chances of making it as a singer. He has, she brusquely declares, a “backpfeifengesicht — a face that is deserving of a slap.”
Bumper, who’s heard it before, takes her comment in stride: “It’s my round cheeks, coupled with my whole personality.” Indeed, Bumper’s slappability is precisely what made him so fun in the first Pitch Perfect — his ever-present smirk and bullying ways made him not only easy to hate, but fun to root against.
As Bumper well knows, however, not every member of an ensemble is destined to break out as a solo act, and that unfortunately proves to be the case in his eponymous TV spinoff. The series, created by Megan Amram and Elizabeth Banks, isn’t entirely charmless; it benefits from a game cast and a smattering of decent laugh lines. But they’re stretched too thin across an otherwise pointless series with few fresh ideas and a wearying protagonist.
Though Bumper in Berlin picks up several years after the Pitch Perfect movies, not much has changed for Bumper Allen since the second installment. As of the premiere, directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, he’s still rattling around Barden University as a security guard, his hopes of musical fame dwindling by the day. Then Pieter (Flula Borg) — previously seen in Pitch Perfect 2 as part of Das Sound Machine, “the rival a cappella group to my former a cappella group’s rival a cappella group,” as Bumper helpfully recaps — calls with an out-of-the-blue offer. Bumper’s TikToks have gone viral in Germany, unbeknownst to him, and Pieter wants to manage his path to bona-fide success.
Bumper in Berlin carries on the Pitch Perfect comedic tradition of pretending a cappella is a way bigger deal than any real person in the real world might reasonably believe it to be. As it turns out, Pieter has an ulterior motive for luring Bumper across the Atlantic: Bumper’s shot at stardom is also Pieter’s grasp for redemption, since Pieter has never recovered from a cheating scandal that turned Das Sound Machine into “Germany’s second greatest shame.” (To which Bumper responds, “What’s Germany’s first greatest — oh. Yeah.”) If Pieter’s career is on the line, so is that of Heidi (Sarah Hyland), his unfailingly loyal assistant. And once Pieter manages to cajole his sister Thea into working with them, backpfeifengesicht or no, so is hers.
As charted over six half-hour episodes, Bumper’s path toward success only kind of makes sense. Surely a super-specific Unity Day concert slot isn’t the only way to launch an entertainment career in the age of social media? Surely no one really expects Bumper, or anyone else, to write an original hit single in a day? But it functions well enough as an excuse to string together an array of musical numbers, ranging from acoustic ballads to Gaga-esque pop productions. (The latter comes courtesy of Bumper’s rival Gisela, played by Jameela Jamil in Titania mode.) As befits a Pitch Perfect project, there’s a rendition of “Barbie Girl” set at an art gallery that captures a cappella’s unique ability to seem, at once, totally cringeworthy and kind of cool.
The plot also yields no end of jokes, some of which are pretty funny — I laughed at loud at the sick burn of an avant-garde artist (guest star Udo Kier) reacting to a routine interaction with “I wish I could say it was a pleasure but then, what is pleasure?” Too many of the punchlines, however, boil down to either “Germans, am I right?” or “Americans, am I right?” More than once, Bumper incredulously asks, “Are you serious?” only to be told, “I’m German, of course I’m serious!”
If nothing else, Bumper in Berlin does make a solid showcase for Borg as a rising comedic star. The awkward yet imposing Pieter introduced in Pitch Perfect 2 has been humbled into someone softer, dorkier and more earnest. He’s particularly touching in scenes that lean on the sibling dynamic between Pieter and Abova’s effortlessly cool Thea, and his guileless enthusiasm almost sells groaner lines like “All you need to do is ask yourself, Will I Am or Won’t I Am?”
The series additionally serves up ample opportunities for Hyland to show off a very pretty singing voice — even if her will-they-or-won’t-they with Bumper, which begins with the pair bonding a few minutes into the premiere over their habit of taking pills by wrapping them in American cheese “like a dog,” feels more like the product of a screenwriting formula than of genuine chemistry.
But then there’s Bumper. The series struggles to thread the needle between making Bumper awful enough to be recognizable from earlier Pitch Perfects (where he’d do stuff like throw food at a rival, for the sheer joy of ruining her day) and likable enough to champion as an underdog hero. It settles on making him a man-child so stupid he’d throw away his passport under the assumption that it’s a one-time-use document. Devine, faced with the impossible task of making a believable person out of these half-hearted contradictions, leans on what amounts to an unofficial Jack Black impression — which only serves to underline that he’s no Jack Black.
With a central character who’s more exhausting than endearing, a shrug of a plot and jokes that miss as often as they hit, Bumper in Berlin starts to look an awful lot like a sequel that exists not because its makers had some brilliant story they needed to share with the world, nor because fans were clamoring for the further adventures of this supporting character, but because Universal couldn’t bear to let a once-successful franchise lie fallow. Perhaps it’d have been better off leaving Bumper in Barden, and directing its energies instead toward just reminding people that the far superior Pitch Perfect is still streaming on Peacock.
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