The reason "Saturday Night Live" still commands attention? The electrical current of American politics, as well as return visits by Tina Fey. Not the sketch comedy. The show that has embedded countless characters and catchphrases into pop culture has little to offer right now, other than a troupe of willing comics in search of inspired material. "Mad TV," too, is at an ebb. So here is HBO's "Little Britain USA," premiering tomorrow at 10:30 p.m., to help fill the void.
An American spin on the British series from the original's creators, Matt Lucas and David Walliams, "Little Britain USA" delivers a community of characters who exhibit acute symptoms of human nature and then some. The show is certainly crude burlesque, with no shortage of penis and breast jokes along the way; if you don't like comedy that pushes the boundaries of good taste, you have no business here. But the material is presented with enough comic skill, cultural resonance, and clever mockery to rise above. The sketch that finds a cop getting visibly aroused each time he picks up a gun, for example, is infantile and yet savvy; ditto the one in which a little girl spouts nasty phrases she's gleaned from the Internet.
And the woman who gives voice to her dog, and then has her dog make her do unseemly things in public, is a classic caricature of anthropomorphism and dog love. It's kind of sick, kind of extreme, kind of true. In that one sketch, you can see the debt that Lucas and Walliams owe to the broadness of Monty Python, the offbeat freakiness of Kids in the Hall, and the social satire of Tracey Ullman. Still, the bit is uniquely their own.
Lucas and Walliams play all the major male and female characters on "Little Britain USA," some of whom also appear in their British series - notably the officious receptionist whose mantra is "Computer says no." But the theme of the American series is, as hyperbolic narrator Tom Baker tells us, "cross-cultural examination." And so the British characters are in America, among a set of new characters, including a former astronaut desperate for attention for being the eighth man on the moon. There's a gay British prime minister who has the hots for a black American president, and an American couple whose visiting British cousins have a rather quaint mother-son dynamic, all in the name of culture clash.
As on Showtime's "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union," the episodes are presented as a sort of day-in-the-life-of-America, with appealing production values that are nonetheless marred by a laugh track. Much as I admired "Little Britain USA," I was glad to learn that it's only a six-episode series. Like so much sketch comedy, it's always best to leave us wanting more, rather than overdosing viewers into exhaustion .
"The Life & Times of Tim" does not leave us wanting more. The animated comedy, which premieres on HBO tomorrow at 11 after "Little Britain USA," is unnecessarily slow and slack. It's the antithesis of cartoons such as "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy," which cram every moment with visual and verbal wit. "Tim," created by Steve Dildarian, leans hard on hip understatement and winds up feeling tamped down into monotony. The simplistic, static animation style doesn't help.
Tim is an average guy with a girlfriend named Amy and a job at a generic company called Omnicorp. His voice (by Dildarian) never rises above a low-key, rational tone. Wildly embarrassing things happen to him in each segment of the show - on Sunday, Amy and her parents catch Tim with a prostitute in the first half, and then Tim is humiliated after a work party. But still Tim drones on, like Ray Romano on heavy doses of Valium.
Sometimes there's a germ of an idea with potential in a segment - in episode 2, for instance, Tim's boss asks him to pretend to be Tim Sanchez so the office will appear diverse. But then too often Dildarian hammers down and drags out the gag until it shifts from promising to enervating.