Critic’s Pick: TV Picks: ‘Chris Gethard,’ ‘Uranium,’ ‘The Bomb,’ ‘The Walker’
“The Chris Gethard Show” (Fusion, Tuesdays). A clubhouse talk show, imported from Manhattan public access cable, where it logged something like 150 episodes since 2011 (still available on Gethard’s YouTube channel). The new series, which is slated for 10 episodes, seven of which have aired and six of which are available here, is more of a star-studded and a bigger-budget affair -- that is to say, it has a budget -- and a more tightly packed one; it runs around 21 minutes to the cable show’s usual hour. The compression and the professionalism paradoxically make the new edition seem the more daring, in part because Gethard himself -- 35, but with the agelessness of an animated cartoon -- seems less likely in this context, and less comfortable. (This is a theme.) As conceived for the relative big time, the vibe falls somewhere between “Wonderama” and the Jimmy Fallon “Tonight Show,” with a healthy sprinkling of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” another thing that moved to TV from an improv theater. (The show began onstage at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade.) The audience, spread as before around the set, is young and vocal; Gethard will refer to them as “kids.” It is all very next-generation.
Accompanying the host, all immigrating from cable, are sidekick Shannon O’Neill (the artistic director of the New York UCB), “Internet liaison” Bethany Hall, who fields and introduces the Skype calls and checks on the chat room -- the show is live and interactive -- announcer Murf, the Human Fish (a person in goggles and swim fins) and pop-punk house band LLC, whose lead singer, Hallie Bulliet, is married to Gethard. Guests on the Fusion series have so far included Abby Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Ellie Kemper, Seth Meyers, Wyatt Cenac, Will Ferrell, who offered toasts in an episode in which Gethard (actually) married three couples, and Jason Sudeikis, who appeared in an episode created for an audience of dogs. Each installment has a theme, talking point or experimental element. In “Fear: A Comedy Show,” the host, sidekick and guest Aidy Brant were blindfolded and teased with feather boas, bunches of kale and fake and real snakes. “I don’t want to cry two episodes in a row,” said Gethard, surely the only talk show host since Jack Paar even to be able to make such a statement, and the only one ever to describe himself on camera as “a broken person.” For the Meyers episode, Gethard and his cast had been awake for 36 hours, the better to disarrange their senses. One recurring feature, called “Stare Into a Celebrity’s Soul,” requires the guest to engage directly with the camera until he or she can’t. “It’s horrifying,” said Kemper, who was afterward comforted with cuteness: bunnies, kittens, a baby in a tuxedo dunking a basketball, and a dog dressed as Ira Glass.
“Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail” (PBS, Tuesday and Wednesday); “The Bomb” (PBS, Tuesday). July 16 marked the 70th anniversary of the birth of the atomic bomb, and this dubious achievement is being marked on public television this week by (at least) a couple of overlapping documentaries. (There will also be a nuclear-themed episode of “Nova,” “Nuclear Meltdown Disaster” about the Fukushima earthquake and, ah, nuclear meltdown disaster, unseen by me.) “Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail” is a two-part documentary, featuring personable Australian-Canadian hipster physicist and science presenter Derek Muller, elsewhere the star and proprietor of the highly entertaining YouTube channel Veritasium, where he answers or gets as close to as possible to answering questions like “Can we really touch anything?” and “What is NOT random?” and performs illuminating experiments and science-themed rewrites of pop songs. The first half focuses on “the story of how a rock became a bomb,” thanks a lot, with Muller traipsing the globe in the footsteps of history; the second looks at its subsequent nonweaponized uses, in medicine and as a source of power -- and its literal fallout, too, with visits to Chernobyl and Fukushima. Marred only by a soundtrack overdramatic and overcomedic by turns and some goofy literalizing of the metaphorical dragon, it’s an enlightening, engaging film, with the cosmic history and chemistry of uranium well-explained and things you might sort of know brought into clearer focus -- what radiation is, how it can mess with a body, why half-life is called half-life. As with other popularizing Public Faces of Science, Muller’s excitement over what’s amazing can seem at odds with what is also horrifying, and some of what he presents here does tend to make this whole radiation business sound less rather than more frightening. But you will see him scared, too.
A two-hour history of nuclear weapons and what might be called atomic culture from just before the Manhattan Project to just after the end of the (first) Cold War, “The Bomb” focuses mostly on the U.S. vis-a-vis Germany, Japan and later Russia, with only a cursory nod to other countries that have the bomb and no speculating as to what a neo-fanatical world still chockablock with nukes might eventually hold. The approach is straightforward, almost aggressive, in a History Channel kind of way, with repeated insistence on how at this and that moment everything changed and nothing would ever be the same, and present-tense narration to make the present tense: “If Adolf Hitler gets the bomb, he will be unstoppable.” Off the top it pitches “state-of-the art restoration” of footage of nuclear blasts and “the only properly exposed color still photo from that night,” meaning Trinity, the test whose anniversary we are noting -- so there’s that. More interesting to me are the photos and color home movies from inside Los Alamos, the remote New Mexico instant city of science where the first bomb was designed and built. (Fans of WGN’s “Manhattan” will want to watch.) For all the bigness of the subject, which has cast a shadow over seven decades, much of this tale, as accidental as it also feels inevitable, is one of individual egos warping history, of scientists at war with politicians, of evil scientists at war with good ones, of wounded bureaucrats out for revenge.
“The Walker” (Refinery29). This eight-part Web comedy, written and starring Rightor Doyle and focusing on a gay Manhattanite and his three female besties (Carey Mulligan, Betty Gilpin, Zoe Kazan), comes from Refinery29, “a lifestyle platform that delivers nonstop inspiration to help women live a more stylish and creative life.” Doyle plays the in-demand Walker, who is also “a walker,” a platonic escort for women in situational need of one. As the story of four friends shot on location in New York, there’s a superficial resemblance to “Sex in the City” and “Girls,” but it has a dreamy, creamy, sweet and ever-so-slightly melancholy vibe of its own. If its overall arc is a little weak and familiar -- Walker, getting a little success, ignores his true friends for false ones, has to remember what’s important -- and if one wonders from time to time what makes Walker supposedly so universally attractive, the series is highly pleasurable in its parts and performances, with brief, funny scenes among the leads, who are all best friends in real life, and guests including Mamie Gummer and Gabourey Sidibe. Some interesting elements are introduced late, giving this the feel of a prelude, almost like a pilot episode for a series yet to come.
Robert Lloyd is on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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