CBS isn't exactly known for groundbreaking comedy, but the network's streaming option CBS All Access apparently is the perfect place for experimenting with formats, style and degrees of humor, if the new series No Activity is any indication.
No Activity, from Will Ferrell's Funny or Die operation, is so unlike anything CBS would dare to air. How? Well, in addition to eschewing the laugh track and multi-camera setup so common in CBS sitcoms, it's essentially My Dinner With Andre played out a few times over the window dressing of a police stakeout, and the whole thing plays out more like a televised stage play than a traditional series.
The comedy's distinguishing feature is also its riskiest; it's almost entirely comprised of scenes featuring two characters talking to each other out of boredom in single settings, while the illusion of something grander is supposedly playing out elsewhere. There's a pair of cops (Tim Meadows, co-creator Patrick Brammall) sitting in a car waiting for something to happen. There's two dispatchers (Amy Sedaris, Sunita Mani) back at the precinct waiting for something to happen. There's a couple of crooks (Jesse Plemons and a rotating cast) chilling in criminal spaces — say it with me — waiting for something to happen. And for the most part, nothing happens.
It shouldn't work, but it does for the most part thanks to a talented cast that can take absurd banter and make it lively, at least in the two episodes screened to critics. Sedaris goes T.M.I. about her masturbating son, Jason Mantzoukas — who hopefully has a regular role in the show because he's deservedly having a moment — goes on about his mom's cat that got out, and Meadows details an odd encounter he had with someone who was using his favorite workplace bathroom stall. However, the piece de resistance comes from guest star J.K. Simmons, playing an internal affairs officer, who ends the second episode with an epic monologue about how he ruined his life by submitting to love.
It's No Activity boiled down to its essentials; someone is talking, and it happens to be very funny. And with guest stars that include Ferrell, Bob Odenkirk, Michaela Watkins and Mackenzie Davis, it should continue to be funny. Just don't expect any major plot-driven humor, because nothing really happens.
But it could, which would make it one of television's greatest experiments in comedy. The threat of something happening is everywhere — at the end of Episode 1, something does happen and the show's tagline is "Sh*t happens. Eventually" — and it would be interesting to see if the show suddenly veers into plot-heavy action in winking and rewarding fashion at the end of its eight-episode first season and brings all of its characters together, because all the pieces are in place for some serious activity.
No Activity premieres Sunday, Nov. 12 on CBS All Access with new episodes released each week.
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