There are no summer doldrums when it comes to the web series genre. With summer a few days away, the longest days of the year brings with it the new seasons of two shows that are similar in some ways but vastly different in their direction. Both shows are helmed by well-known stars who bring with them a New York sensibility, digital programming Emmy Award nominations, and legions of fans — but that’s perhaps where the similarity ends.
While fans of film and TV know Steve Buscemi from his vast roles that showcase his comedic and dramatic talents, the Brooklyn-born actor has range and charisma that go far beyond his ability to read other people’s words. Entering its second season, AOL has brought back “Park Bench,” a “talking show,” where Buscemi and his portable park bench patrol NY to encounter and speak to the people that make up the city’s singular character. What makes the show work is its host’s ability to be genuine in his ability to relate to the mayor as well as a troubadour he finds in Msgr. Mcgolrick Park.
Not all of the first season’s 13 episodes are home runs, but when it blurs the lines between script and improv, it’s as good as any show being streamed today. That is to say, when a given episode projects an overall theme (such as interviewing Mayor Bill de Blasio), yet allows enough margin for Buscemi to improvise, it feels like we are eavesdropping on a real conversation as opposed to something staged.
Season one, whose idea appears to have been hatched over some adult beverage in a corner bar, introduced the premise of Buscemi launching a web series that explored the people and the fabric of New York’s neighborhoods. His posse included his brother Michael (who has the running bit of producing a competing show, “Bench Talk”), and Gino/Geo Orlando, one of Steve’s buddies, who embodies the soul of a New Yorker everyman — one part gruff, one part streetwise, one part charm.
Season two begins where the debut episode started — at the corner bar, recapping the first year and setting the scene for what’s to come. A new wrinkle — and we’re not sure whether it was for the launch of the new season or a recurring character — is the presence of Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog. The cigar-chomping wiseass puppet, manned by veteran comic Robert Smigel, one of “SNL”’s best and most creative writers, is laugh-out-loud funny. Triumph steals the show in season two’s opener, asking Buscemi now that he has an AOL hit, is he prepared to move on to CompuServe?
Unlike other streaming nets, AOL tends to avoid the binge dump, airing a new episode each week. In the upcoming weeks, the guests will include Elvis Costello, comedian John Oliver, actress Amber Tamblyn, actress Zosia Mamet, and actor Paul Sparks. Let’s hope Triumph is more than a one-shot deal; we all need a good, politically-incorrect belly laugh.
In sharp contrast to “Park Bench,” Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” on Crackle is wearing its premise thin, with more bitter grounds than soothing caffeine blasts. The metaphor of using vintage cars “as a vehicle” to verbally spar with his peers has done more to accentuate Seinfeld’s flaws than his brilliant timing and wit. From the looks of season six, one has to wonder whether this is the year Jerry ends his run (or drive) and moves on to perhaps a more suitable…vehicle.
At issue is the fact that, in all candor, Seinfeld is a comic, not a comic actor. Anyone who has watched his landmark series would agree that his role is that of a facilitator rather than thespian. Again, any one devotee who has watched outtakes on YouTube will agree many scenes had to be reshot because Jerry was unable to keep a straight face during filming. This is not the say as a writer, observer of the human condition, and joke-teller Seinfeld isn’t the funniest man alive; it’s rather to say his long-running web series works best when the episode is less about him, and more about his guest. And, it’s at its very best when that guest is someone from outside his inner circle.
Case in point: season one, episode nine. Without a question, the top “CICGC” show was the one where he joins Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks for dinner on TV trays at Reiner’s house. While a TV icon, Seinfeld knows his place, and we delight as he sits back and enjoys (along with the audience) Brooks’ quips and reminisces about “Get Smart,” “Blazing Saddles,” his friendship with Richard Pryor, and other heartfelt memories. On the other end of the spectrum, as we see in the season six opener, which reunites Jerry and Elaine (Julia Louis Dreyfuss), the inside the actor’s studio interaction between the stars is filled with inside gags and stale banter that truly reflect a “show about nothing.”
This is not to say “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” is not a good show, and even at its most mundane is not worth your time. With a star of Seinfeld’s talent and magnitude, we expect and deserve something better.