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'Mulaney' recap: Patriot acts

Season 1 | Episode 6 | “Patriot Acts” | Aired Nov 23, 2014

It seems like it only gets harder and harder to write about Mulaney each week. Though it hasn’t been canceled yet, this episode marks the show’s official move from a 9:30 post-Family Guy time slot to a 7:30 pre-Simpsons time slot. It’s struggling, and Mulaney himself knows it—he’s been posting endearing tweets and making adorable talk show appearances for weeks.

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It’s torturous watching such a likable and genuinely talented dude flail with a mediocre show. It sucks to watch someone with such strong comedic voice fall so short of his own potential. At this point, tuning in every week is basically an experiment in masochism.

Many will see Mulaney‘s new time slot as a downgrade, and a sure sign of imminent cancellation, but from an optimist’s point of view, it’s a chance to reach a new audience. You don’t often get a second chance at a first impression, and in some ways, tonight was Mulaney‘s second chance. Unfortunately, in a lot of ways, the show totally blew it. Again.

“Patriot Acts” is an episode filled with hilarious concepts and dreadful execution. When Mulaney, Motif, and Jane encounter a marine on a plane ride home from a wedding, they each vow to do something to give back to the U.S. military. Motif and Mulaney decide to participate in a USO show, and Jane decides to date the officer.

But the actual relationship between Jane and Chad, the marine, ends up being more of a plot point than an actual relationship, and it makes the episode’s story structure incredibly transparent. The relationship is never really explored or even talked about outside of its very beginning and end—it basically acts as an excuse to get the marine’s adorable three-legged army dog into the mix. This is a shortcoming of the show as a whole, and the way it handles Nasim Pedrad’s character. Rather than give her a chance for comedic characterization, she’s reduced to a plot device.

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Tying into the night’s patriotism theme, Lou also reminisces about his own memories of war—or at least his memories of performing improv for soldiers at USO shows. Lou’s character is actually one of the best-defined in the show: We know who he is and what he’s about, and there’s specificity in the way he is written that wrings humor out of generally comedically sparse scripts. This episode’s entire story line about Lou’s disastrous improv show was hilarious in theory, but the execution felt awkward and forced. Martin Short is simply miscast in this role, playing it too broadly and earnestly for Mulaney’s dry, sarcastic humor to really ping.

This episode and almost every episode of Mulaney has at least a few genuinely funny ideas lurking underneath the bland and/or misplaced performances of its leads. (This week, the board of ideas for how to solve the missing dog problem and Andre having an exact replica of Mulaney’s apartment on hand come to mind.) But it’s getting hard not to worry that perhaps this isn’t the kind of show that just needs room to grow. Maybe there are flaws in its very base and structure that are holding it back from becoming something worth watching. Mulaney and Martin Short lack chemistry. Zack Pearlman is too annoying for his own good. Seaton Smith and Nasim Pedrad are underused.

If the foundation isn’t strong, there’s no chance for fun decoration. Even if Mulaney’s hilarious and weird sense of humor is bubbling beneath the surface of every episode, it won’t come to fruition until Mulaney can establish its baseline elements. Mulaney needs to be reconfigured to optimize its channels for humor; it’s not too late to turn the show around, but it’ll take some big changes.

Mulaney airs Sundays at 7:30/6:30C on FOX.