Mulaney's Weird, Dark Edge

The new sitcom from an SNL writer has been panned as formulaic. Are critics missing the joke?


Fox’s new sitcom Mulaney, which debuted on Sunday night, comes off like a throwback to a time when creating sitcoms seemed simpler. From its title (the lead actor’s last name) to its premise (a bunch of 20-somethings and a wacky boss hang out in New York) to its opening scene (Mulaney doing stand-up for an unseen audience), how can one not think back to Seinfeld and its countless imitators?

But something’s different. That opening scene is about our hero, John Mulaney, trying to scam some free Xanax from his doctor. One member of the six-person ensemble, Andre (Zack Pearlman) is a drug dealer who the other characters openly despise. Mulaney’s roommates are Jane (Nasim Pedrad), who spends the pilot hacking into an ex-boyfriend’s e-mail account, and Motif (Seaton Smith), a fellow stand-up who achieves fleeting fame for an offensive joke (about calling women “Problem Bitches”) that succeeds despite having no punchline.

There’s something striking about how the harshness of the show’s jokes clash with its hyper-formulaic presentation. Mulaney is directed by Andy Ackerman, a sitcom icon who worked on Seinfeld among many other shows, and it looks like it's been lifted straight out of 1992. That’s probably helping to obscure some of this show’s real promise, but it’s also what makes it interesting—if these characters were being this mean in a realistic setting, Mulaney might be unwatchable. In the familiar confines of the network sitcom, the zingers land softly and cleanly.

I can argue for its "promise" forever, but Mulaney has debuted to pretty terrible reviews; the nicest ones are basically pleas for mercy, almost wishing people would give the show some time to figure things out. And the nice-ish reviews are only happening because of Mulaney’s excellent track record—he wrote some of Saturday Night Live’s best material for four years and made a terrific standup special, New in Town, of which former Fox President Kevin Reilly (who bought and re-tooled the pilot after NBC passed on it) was obviously a fan.

When Reilly picked up Mulaney, he kept much of the NBC pilot’s cast, but a totally new version was made. In an interview on the Andy Greenwald Podcast, Reilly said he was more of an admirer of Mulaney himself than the show he had made for NBC. The new pilot reflects that fact, leaning on Mulaney’s established work as a stand-up, which is obviously not going to be a long-term solution for its plotting. Mulaney’s original pilot script, filmed but ultimately passed on by NBC, did not outright crib material from New in Town, but the Fox pilot includes several of the special’s jokes told verbatim as scripted dialogue. That’s probably one reason everything feels so flat.

The episodes to air in the coming weeks feel like more traditional sitcom plots, but the edge remains. In one, John accuses Jane of being jealous of a girlfriend, and she tells him she only thinks of him as a last resort. John’s boss Lou Cannon (Martin Short) starts obsessing over the manner of his death and wants John to spare his corpse from a humiliating final pose. In another, Jane marches out of a roommate meeting after announcing, “I’m not going to complain about being single anymore because I have found a solution.”

“What if we just heard a gunshot right now?” John says to Motif, grinning.

The funniest parts of the show are non sequiturs. At one point, John is shocked to realize Motif has never heard of Friends, while allowing, “Well, it was kinda for us, by us.” Later, Motif starts binge-watching the show and asks John if Joey is going to make it through every season. John flashes another toothy smile and says “Yeah, he’s gonna die.”

It’s those goofy, morbid, surreal moments that make the show stand out, when it does stand out. I’m holding out hope for Mulaney simply because there’s nothing quite like it on television. It’s getting called “a TV version of normcore” by Slate’s Willa Paskin, but Mulaney probably has more of an idea of how to use and subvert the multi-camera format than the pilot suggests. In an interview with The New York Times, he says, “I knew from the get-go we were doing something weird, and we’d come up against resistance.”

It might seem ridiculous for Mulaney to call a multi-camera sitcom "doing something weird," considering that audiences have been enjoying this format since the invention of broadcast television, but there is a certain audacity to what’s happening here. Mulaney isn’t leaning into the broad, farcical tone of a Chuck Lorre sitcom, the kind that still plays well at CBS. He’s using the clean soundstage presentation to tell stories about mean, arch weirdoes. Forget the stand-up segments or the eponymous title—the show’s biggest similarity to Seinfeld is the one no one seems to be noticing yet.