I pride myself on having a keen eye for talent. Occasionally, though, I get it wrong, as I was reminded recently when I went through some old clippings. Have a look:
“This CSI knockoff is doomed because of its stupid name.” (“The Mentalist,” 2008)
“Alcohol abuse is no laughing matter.” (“Cheers,” 1983)
“Bedtime will never be the same without Jack Paar.” (“Tonight Show,” 1962)
But seriously, it’s hard to imagine a more embarrassing miss in my 12 years as a television critic than “Flight of the Conchords,” the deceptively simple, wonderfully sideways musical-ish comedy starring New Zealanders Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie.
Based on a tepid first impression, I cast aside all future consideration of “Conchords” - and now look. In mere hours, the show is scheduled to air what could be its last-ever program, 10 p.m. EDT Sunday on HBO.
The Internet (where Conchordmania spans the globe) is wild with rumors that after just two seasons and 22 episodes, Clement and McKenzie are ready to move on. By the time I catch up to this bandwagon, it’ll have stopped.
Serves me right for judging an HBO show by its pilot. But you have to admit, there’s something gravity-defying about a series that runs on basically three moving parts: our two mumblecore musicians trying to make it in New York, plus their oddball manager-slash-New Zealand embassy bureaucrat Murray (Rhys Darby). There are a couple of other regulars: highly untrustworthy friend Dave (Arj Barker) and Mel (Kristen Schaal), their number one fan - in both the pioneering and Kathy Bates sense of that term.
But basically it’s this tiny group that keeps finding itself shoehorned into claustrophobic New York spaces (Murray’s cramped office at the embassy being a favorite scene-setter). The show’s core joke is that the Conchords are forced to be close, like brothers who can’t stand each other - and yet, anyone who comes between them is rejected like a transplant gone awry.
It’s a joke that should get old in a hurry - or so I told myself.
And yet this conceit has just kept paying dividends for “Flight of the Conchords.” I can’t remember laughing harder than during the recent episode where Jemaine found himself seduced by an Australian woman whose lust for his helpless Kiwi flesh was all too readily reciprocated. Like all outside relationships, this one threatened the admittedly bleak future of the band, but with a comically sinister cross-cultural edge.
The genius of the episode was that it tossed off endless stereotypes about Ozzies being crude, loutish bastard offspring of criminals deported from the British Isles unfit for cohabitation with New Zealanders - and do it so persuasively that American viewers could enjoy the show’s pitch-perfect payoff scene as much as anyone in the world.
Jemaine returns home and finds his house robbed by his girlfriend and her mates, while his roomie hangs from the door in a body cast of duct tape. And yet, it’s the nearly immobilized Bret who comforts Jemaine, proving literally that they are stuck with each other.
After that one I wondered: Was it me? So I went back and watched a couple shows from the first season in 2007. They were good, too, although I must say the hilarious little ditties, written by McKenzie and Clement and sprinkled into every half-hour show, are definitely more polished and sophisticated this season. (The boys will be releasing a new compilation of their songs and going on tour in April. Their last CD won the Grammy for best comedy album.)
OK, so what if it all ends this weekend? Well, as someone reminded me not long ago, the Brits do this all the time: put a brilliant show on for a while and then take it off before it wilts in the spotlight.
The fact that HBO has another terrific - though very different - show featuring non-American actors on tap, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” speaks well to its reputation as the best channel in pay cable.
Which reminds me of something I wrote not long ago (and this is an actual quote): “Showtime may have finally leveled the playing field with HBO.”