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TELEVISION REVIEW

A slacker comedy that slacks on comedy

Chris Gethard stars as a former Wall Street whiz kid who ends up back at home in 'Big Lake.' Chris Gethard stars as a former Wall Street whiz kid who ends up back at home in "Big Lake." (Ali Goldstein)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / August 17, 2010

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‘Big Lake’’ is bad, but not bad enough to be good. What I mean is, the new Comedy Central series is off-key, but not so off-key that it’s demented and weird like, say, Comedy Central’s “Strangers With Candy.’’ It’s just a flat traditional sitcom built around lazy, repetitive jokes and audience cackles. It’s just bad.

Why should the show, which premieres tonight at 10, be anything better? For one thing, it’s from Funny or Die guys Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, and it features Ferrell’s fellow “Saturday Night Live’’ alums Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz. I thought these guys, all of whom have irreverence flowing in their veins, might be able to change up the sitcom aesthetic — make the most intentionally awful sitcom ever made, or something like that. Also, “Big Lake’’ is on Comedy Central, home of the successfully original narrative comedies “South Park,’’ “The Sarah Silverman Program,’’ and the aforementioned “Strangers With Candy.’’ The network does have a reputation.

But in the first two episodes, “Big Lake’’ ekes out barely enough funny to qualify as a Funny or Die short or an “SNL’’ sketch. The setup finds Josh (Chris Gethard) boomeranging back to his parents’ couch in Pennsylvania after his moment as a Wall Street Whiz Kid passes. He has lost all his parents’ savings, and now he’s searching for a get-rich-quick scheme with his two loser buddies, Glenn (Sanz) and burned-out high school teacher Mr. Henkel (Parnell).

Much of the action revolves around the family couch, where Josh deals with his angry father (James Rebhorn), his kooky diet-pill-addicted mother (Deborah Rush), and his 13-year-old brother (Dylan Blue), who pretends to be an innocent kid with a lisp but is actually a gun-toting drug kingpin. That last bit — foul-mouthed little kid — gets milked dry before the credits fall on the first half-hour. The show toggles back and forth between the guys’ doomed money-making ideas, including a Lee Harvey Oswald museum, and the paper-thin family material.

The comic acting is pretty lame. Gethard, a member of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, doesn’t appear at home in the sitcom format. He strains too hard to seem natural, to be the guy who can’t get a break. Watching him, I was reminded that it is a particular skill to be able to appear at ease on a sitcom stage with a rigid comic pace to keep. The role, which Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite’’) abandoned after “creative differences,’’ is designed to be painfully and unhumorously sincere, even if that doesn’t jibe with the fact that he was a financial-world creep. Parnell and Sanz are fine as his crazy buds, although they don’t seem especially jazzed about the project. Parnell brings so much more mojo to his recurring role as Dr. Spaceman on “30 Rock.’’

The idea of a sitcom that plays around with the recession in Middle America isn’t a bad idea. Timely sitcoms can pry out buried anxieties with humor, they can get us thinking and talking about where we are now. But “Big Lake’’ doesn’t much bother with the issues wound into its premise, going instead for gags we’ve seen in countless mediocre sitcoms across the decades. Norman Lear it ain’t.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

BIG LAKE

Starring: Chris Gethard, Horatio Sans, Chris Parnell

On: Comedy Central

Time: Tonight, 10-10:30