Styled as a presentation of HBO sports, the energetic, goofball mockumentary “Tour de Pharmacy” cocks an eye at bicycle racing, “a sport with literally hundreds of dollars on the line and dozens of fans — stakes are medium.”
The special reunites writer Murray Miller, director Jake Szymanski and actor and executive producer Andy Samberg in a follow-up to their 2015 HBO sports mockumentary, “7 Days in Hell,” about a single weeklong match at Wimbledon.
Here they imagine the 1982 edition of the Tour de France, “the most eccentric bike race in the history of cycling,” called the Tour de Pharmacy because nearly all of the competitors were on drugs, “creating supermen in Superman spandex.” Do I have to state specifically that this is a work of fiction?
“Just super strong character development and the whole thing really played out like a well-written script,” cameo performer J.J. Abrams observes of the race in question. Dialed back a little, it applies well enough to the film he’s in, a shotgun burlesque regulated by a surprisingly tidy and complex non-nonsensical narrative.
It begins with the death on the course of an Italian cyclist, played by Orlando Bloom, whose system — as recounted by Nathan Fielder as the head of an anti-doping agency — is found to contain, among other things, EPO, cocaine, insulin, anabolic steroids, heroin, “some estrogen receptor modulators,” raloxifene and tamoxifen (“probably to ward off breast growth”) and “a lot of oxycodone.”
“Plus,” Fielder continues, “he had apparently huffed ethanol and taken a couple MDAs” and “had clearly smoked some crystal meth and/or crack and there was a hormone from monkey testicles that he cooked down into a broth that he drank. He had also apparently eaten at least one sandwich from Arby’s.”
With the story spread among five competitors — protagonists and antagonists at once — the show is more of an ensemble piece than was “7 Days,” although few members of the ensemble actually act with one another. (Flexible scheduling is what makes such a star-studded minor-league project possible.) Alongside Samberg and Bloom, the cast includes Daveed Diggs, John Cena and Freddie Highmore as their fellow 1982 racers and Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Dolph Lundgren and Julia Ormond — yes, Julia Ormond — as their present-day selves.
You also get James Marsden as a British journalist; Will Forte as a French policeman; Maya Rudolph as the editor of a cycling magazine, whose knowledge of athletes is limited to cyclists (“What’s a basketball player? We don’t have that in Napa”); Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as a childhood neighbor of Samberg’s character; Phylicia Rashad as a militant animator; Kevin Bacon as a corrupt Finnish race official; and Mike Tyson as himself.
“A lot of people think of me as a boxer but what they really didn’t know was that I love bicycles,” Tyson says. This will prove to be a plot point.
Most notable among the cameos — astonishing, even — is Lance Armstrong, the de-legitimized cycling champion, in a running gag about a former racer “bold enough to speak frankly under the guise of anonymity,” which the filmmakers increasingly violate. (“Oh, sorry, I just opened the blinds because it’s so nice out,” says one, literally shining a light on him.) It’s an odd appearance, one that sort of lets Armstrong own his disgrace — if that is even something people experience anymore — and wave it away. (“Put any year under a microscope, you’re going to find a lot of dirt,” he says.) He’s funny, though.
As memorably proposed in “Spinal Tap,” whose techniques and spirit are much in evidence here, there is a fine line between stupid and clever, a line that “Tour de Pharmacy” happily smudges until two become indistinguishable; it feels enlightened and idiotic at once. It’s the sort of comedy that makes room for a parody of French New Wave film and for explicit penis jokes, for dialect humor (Lundgren’s identical pronunciation of “cheetah” and “cheater” is the basis of one bit) and a cartoon about red blood cells that ends in a corpuscular race riot. Small motifs are recycled from “7 Days”: revealing menswear, parodies of Scandinavian media, debt as motivation.
It’s a sketch, essentially, effectively blown out to 40 minutes — not too short, not too long. Apart from the generally good jokes and the amusing imitations of period style, what makes “Tour de Pharmacy” good company is the overarching sense of play.
That describes a lot of modern comedy, for better or worse, the sense that the players are on board primarily for the good time and camaraderie as much as for the material or the paycheck. It’s a feeling the modesty of this production only enhances.
‘Tour de Pharmacy’
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd