It's hard to know how to label "Flight of the Conchords," and that's one of the best things about it. HBO's endearing new indie comedy is different from anything on TV right now, although fans of the askew humor of "The Office" and "Extras" are likely to find something approaching familiar here. About a pair of misfit New Zealand musicians in New York's Lower East Side, "Flight of the Conchords" is one of the few TV comedies that truly can be called unique.
That's probably why HBO has been airing the show, which premieres tomorrow at 10:30 p.m., free on the Internet for weeks. The channel's executives know that you have to see it to grok it.
"Flight of the Conchords" does have an interesting progenitor in the 1987 British movie "Withnail & I," in which two bumbling, unemployed hipsters travel to the countryside and into the end of the 1960s. And comparisons could be made to "Slacker," the 1991 movie that defined the hip social fringe of Austin, Texas, and started the career of writer-director Richard Linklater.
But Bret and Jemaine of "Flight," played as versions of themselves by Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement , have none of the social or political edge portrayed in those movies. They are feckless, lovable musicians who burst into song a few times in each episode to express the fantasy selves they generally keep in check. They are flatlined personalities except when delivering a would-be rap song or an off-kilter Prince-like ballad with parodic lyrics such as "You're so beautiful/ Like a high-class prostitute."
Essentially, Bret and Jemaine do nothing special all day long, as they cluelessly try to "get with" women and jump-start their careers with their idiotic manager Murray (Rhys Darby ), who films a music video with his cellphone. And Bret and Jemaine certainly say nothing clever. Their banter sounds more like a pair of dummies perseverating over tiny points of useless fact, talking at each other in their heavy Kiwi accents. And yet the show feels more subtle and textured than buddy comedies such as "Dumb and Dumber" or "Beavis and Butt-head." Clement and McKenzie, who have worked as the folk-music parodists Flight of the Conchords for years, create an artful absurdity with hints of Monty Python in the mix.
Some of the sickest moments on the show involve Bret and Jemaine's biggest -- and only -- fan, a lost soul named Mel, who is played with perverse stalker glee by Kristen Schaal. She "accidentally" bumps into the guys all the time, and she's always fishing to make out with one of them, despite the fact that her husband is always waiting for her in the car. She appears to prefer Bret, although in an episode when Murray fires Bret, her passion turns slightly to Jemaine, who, with his big lips and sideburns down to his Adam's apple, is less conventionally handsome.
"Flight of the Conchords" is not the kind of show that demands weekly viewing, partly because McKenzie, Clement, and co-creator James Bobin don't seem to have any plot development in mind as the season progresses. While the idea of plot contradicts the rudderlessness of Bret and Jemaine's lives, the rudderlessness of Bret and Jemaine's lives threatens to make the episodes feel redundant. The four half-hours that HBO sent to critics were funny, but at times indistinguishable from one another. But I am nonetheless eager to see if the story gains momentum in the course of its 12-episode run, and grows from a sweet nothing into a sweet something about nothing.