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In the sixth episode of Greg Garcia’s new Freevee comedy Sprung, two characters, while seemingly stealing a truck of valuable art, have a conversation about the Jimmy Buffett musical Escape to Margaritaville. The episode ends with the playing of a full song from said musical; it’s the sort of creative choice that would seem utterly random if you didn’t know that Garcia co-wrote Escape to Margaritaville.
Garcia wrote and directed every episode of Sprung and Garcia is the Rosetta Stone through which almost every second of Sprung can be understood or interpreted. Trying to figure out where you recognize a random supporting actor from? Chances are good that you remember them from a Garcia show. Scratching your head about why a comic cadence, pop-culture reference or piece of kitschy production design feels familiar? Odds are that it’s similar to something from a Garcia show.
This is not to say that Sprung represents Garcia in self-plagiarizing mode, just that my best reviewing shorthand for Sprung is that if you loved Raising Hope or My Name Is Earl (or The Guest Book or Yes, Dear, I suppose), then it’s a safe guarantee you’re going to enjoy trying to figure out what Freevee is (Amazon’s free television platform formerly known as IMDb TV) and how much you’ll have to pay to watch it (free). And if not? It’s still a solid blend of coarse, lowbrow humor and well-executed sentiment, featuring a great ensemble cast.
Sprung also, it must be warned, has a COVID-19 backdrop and mostly uses the pandemic for humor. It’s very clever about the way it explores the pandemic’s economic impact, particularly on blue-collar households. It entirely avoids dealing with the pandemic’s more tragic toll, which is completely understandable given the series’ comedic nature, but may turn off or at least concern some audiences.
The series is set in the early days of COVID, back in 2020, when some prisons were releasing non-violent offenders as overcrowded facilities became Petri dishes for disease. Not instantly hilarious. Among the prisoners getting sprung are Jack (Garret Dillahunt), locked away for 26 years thanks to mandatory minimums for marijuana offenses; trained con-woman Gloria (Shakira Barrera); and untrained petty criminal Rooster (Phillip Garcia). Jack and Gloria have never met, but they’ve been carrying on a prison romance flirting through their respective toilets, though Gloria thinks Jack is 28 and looks like a cross between The Rock and A-Rod and he is not those things.
Having been released from incarceration into a world where everybody is locked down by COVID, Jack and Gloria have nowhere to go. Rooster invites them to come live with his mother Barb (Martha Plimpton) and, in no time, Barb insists that her new guests join the family’s petty criminal enterprise. Lately, she’s been stealing peoples’ Amazon packages, an amusing thing for a character to do on a show airing on an Amazon-owned platform. Jack, a fundamentally decent sort who learned more about criminality in prison than in his time as an alleged miscreant, insists that they only rob bad people, starting with toilet paper hoarder Melvin (James Earl), who just happens to be dating bikini dancer Wiggles (Clare Gillies), to whom Rooster was formerly very nearly engaged.
Future targets then include a wealthy congresswoman (Kate Walsh’s Paula Tackleberry), who made millions on insider trading when the pandemic began and is hoping to make even more when a vaccine is ready.
Garcia’s shows always tend to lead with a broadness that gives the impression of making fun of his characters, who are prone to malapropisms, getting their news from wholly unreliable sources, and live in houses packed with cornily unironic knick-knacks and malfunctioning, outmoded technology. It usually doesn’t take very long for Garcia to introduce compassion for his characters, to find the warmth in their unrenovated residences, the value in their piles of retro tchotchkes, the family histories in their broken-down cars, plus the wisdom and resilience in their lack of self-awareness.
He’s also a fervent believer in the human capacity to do good, so if Jack’s altruistic desire to play Robin Hood resembles the main character’s superficial but well-meaning embrace of karma in My Name Is Earl, it should. You might start a Garcia show thinking he’s punching down, but whatever laughs he wrings at the expense of the financially struggling, his real contempt is for the wealthy and powerful and the institutions that fail so badly that it’s up to vigilante do-gooders like Jack or Jason Lee’s Earl to make things right.
Watching Sprung, it’s easy to see how COVID fits into those themes. Maybe our main characters believe a few too many medical conspiracies or put a little too much stock in the advice of our former president. But the show has a pure affection for them, while the villains are medical charlatans and political opportunists. Garcia shreds his intended targets and he isn’t afraid of going pleasantly mawkish when good deeds are done. There’s a lot of laughter throughout and even, at one or two episode-ending points, some reluctant tears.
There’s a lot of everything, because episodes of Sprung tend to be between 35 and 40 minutes. Even if that includes an extensive pre-amble to every episode and surprisingly long closing credit tags, it’s probably more than any situation comedy could carry with consistency. Several serialized storylines — Jack and Gloria’s growing real-world flirtation, Rooster’s reconciliation with Wiggles, Barb’s online relationship with a possible fraudster, the complicated maneuverings to rob the congresswoman — build nicely through the nine-episode season. But there are definitely episodic plotlines and whole episodes that could have stood to be tightened.
Plimpton and Dillahunt both deserved Emmy consideration for Raising Hope and they continue to be perfectly attuned to Garcia’s elegantly mangled comic dialogue. Barb and Virginia Chance from Raising Hope aren’t identical, but they share a native intelligence and benefit from Plimpton’s commitment to every slightly grotesque behavior, every woefully ill-considered fashion choice and every bit of political incorrectness. Dillahunt has an underlying innocence, especially when it comes to societal and technological changes during his time in jail, that makes Jack’s ever-so-inappropriate budding romance with Gloria seem acceptable, while Barrera is sharp and funny enough to make it seem earned.
Garcia is an expert at crafting likably dumb characters and Phillip Garcia and Clare Gillies both excel at finding so much sweetness in Rooster and Wiggles that even when the show is very clearly laughing at them, they retain full dignity. Gillies in particular gets better and better as the season progresses and I had to rewind several of Wiggles’ scenes because I lost the punchlines while laughing at the set-ups.
Narratively, Sprung isn’t inherently set up for another season and I think the way the story resolves works well on Garcia’s ridiculous-but-still-emotional terms. That may be for the best since My Name Is Earl in particular proved that when the balance on a Garcia show falls out of whack, the results can be really bad. But Raising Hope was pretty consistent across its four seasons, so maybe it would be nice to return for another COVID-assisted heist with the thoroughly appealing, thoroughly Greg Garcia-esque Sprung crew.
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