Review: CBS All Access tries comedy with the dryly daffy ‘No Activity’
Already home to “Star Trek: Discovery” and “The Good Fight,” CBS All Access shifts to comedy for its third original production, “No Activity,” premiering Sunday.
Like its predecessors on the premium streaming wing of the venerable broadcast network, “No Activity” has been built on the bones of another series, in this case an Australian comedy of the same name — also from a streaming network and also featuring Patrick Brammall as a police detective. (Brammall co-writes the series with director Trent O’Donnell, who directed and co-wrote “Review With Myles Barlow,” upon which the Andy Daly Comedy Central comedy “Review” is based.)
Smart, odd and assured, “No Activity” strengthens an already decent case for expanding your discretionary television spending.
The series, here set in San Diego, arrives by way of executive producers Adam McKay and Will Ferrell and their web-based Funny or Die comedy consortium. How closely it follows the Australian original, I can’t say, but its dry, daffy, somewhat melancholy tone and improvisational rhythms are very much consistent with the home of Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns.” In form and content it is certainly more radical than the comedies you’ll find on the CBS broadcast mother ship, where the language is milder, risky subject matter comes wrapped in innuendo and (with rare exceptions) the laughter of a live audience lets you know what’s supposed to be funny.
Alongside Brammall, as Det. Nick Cullen, the main cast includes Tim Meadows as his partner, Det. Judd Tolbeck; Amy Sedaris as senior dispatcher Janice; Sunita Mani as trainee Fatima, who is keeping her career options open (“Maybe I’ll open a scuba shop, or maybe I’ll be a rap producer”); and Jason Mantzoukas and Jesse Plemons as Marco and Angus, low-level criminals stuck in a cargo container awaiting a shipment of drugs. Bob Odenkirk plays Greg, a lonesome security guard on the wharf where the detectives are on a stakeout, who calls them at every opportunity.
“I wanted to report the formation of a dark cloud over the eastern perimeter,” he reports. “It’s probably nothing, but ‘dark cloud’ is usually a classic metaphor for foreboding and I thought that might be pertinent to the investigation.”
It may be too much to say that this show is specifically about the desire to connect (and, conversely, the horror of connection), but it is a repeating theme, and human misunderstanding is the very foundation of situation comedy. Even when they’re teamed, characters are usually at cross purposes.
It’s “Waiting for Godot” as a police procedural. (“Why do they keep us in the dark?” Cullen complains.) The detectives have been on their stakeout for 35 days; the criminals in the container are waiting for the drugs to arrive, and they never do. (“We’ll wait as long as he wants us to wait – that’s the job. We’re being paid to wait.”) Each pair passes time in annoyed small talk or telling stories their partner doesn’t particularly care to hear. “I guess we have different definitions of emergencies,” Angus tells Marco when Marco’s mother’s cat gets out.
Storytelling is the show’s method and at times its meat. Tolbeck, who has only skimmed the case file fearing “spoilers,” asks, “Why do I want to read the novel when I want to be in the movie?” When J.K. Simmons, as an internal affairs investigator, plants himself in the back seat of Cullen and Tolbeck’s unmarked police car, he delivers a long monologue that really isn’t comical at all (and may have nothing to do with the action going forward). And yet it does not register as out of joint with the rest of the show.
In the sense that it comes in over the internet, “No Activity” might be legitimately called a web series, but it is like a web series in its economical production as well with its focus on scenes that can play well on a telephone and the larky feel of its comradely comedy. It is a sort of chamber music, arranged as a series of duets and trios and quartets. And though each section locks in with the others – there is a larger story being told, potentially – each also has a kind of self-contained, stand-alone integrity.
Only two episodes were made available for review; I have no idea whether the series will remain as physically inert throughout its run as it manages to for most of what I’ve seen. I hope so. Stillness is hard to do well, and it’s oddly exciting to watch a series so persistently resist the pull of what we think of as activity. (As per its title.)
Indeed, it feels like a spoiler even to say that characters eventually do stand up and move. Happily, they don’t go far.
Where: CBS All Access
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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