[1 October 2010]
The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret is a one-man, stand-up comic’s show. Writer David Cross’s fleeting moments of ingeniously absurd wordplay make it worth watching, but the shaggy characterization (and a surprising number of pratfalls) makes for an uneven whole.
Cross plays the titular Todd Margaret, a drab office temp who lives in Portland with his cat and listens to a self-help CD called Stop Being Such a Pussy - Unleash Your Inner Warrior. In the first episode, airing 1 October on IFC, he’s mistaken for a fellow sales warrior by his crass, foul-mouthed boss (Will Arnett), fooled as Todd awkwardly, nearly inadvertently, bluffs his way into a new job: he’s tasked with selling a new energy drink, Thunder Muscle, in England, a country about which he knows nothing.
Each episode opens with Todd Margaret bruised and defeated, shackled and wearing a prison uniform, flanked by two hard-looking policemen as an off-screen voice recounts his crimes. These change every week, ranging from espionage and drug trafficking to child endangerment, consumer fraud, and impersonating a gentleman. (Each episode has an archaic, “British” title: “In Which Claims are Made and a Journey Ensues,” “In Which Brent Wilts Arrives and Things Take a Turn for the Worse,” and so on.) The episode then flashes back, so that we see how Todd has come to his distinctly unpleasant ending.
Within this rather conventional fish-out-of-water story, Todd suffers a series of broadly wacky mishaps: in the first episode, his luggage, left suspiciously unattended, gets blown up; he scalds his hand on an overheated jam jar; and, overdosing on his own product, he goes on a destructive energy drink binge through a local café. The premiere concludes with him urinating on himself—in fact, of the first three episodes, two end with self-urination. (The third, for the record, ends with a supporting character commenting of Todd that he has a “massive erection, shat himself.”)
The indignities pile on. Todd’s relationship with Alice (Sharon Horgan), a café owner whose pity and politeness he mistakes for romantic interest, is another source of humiliation. Likewise, his assistant Dave (Blake Harrison) makes no secret—to the viewer, at least—of his disrespect for his boss. In the third episode, Dave recommends Todd wear a shirt promoting the British National Party, the right-wing political party dedicated to “Putting English People First.” This puts Todd in the awkward position of having to declare to a café full of cosmopolitan Londoners, “I am not a racist.”
Todd’s “increasingly poor decisions”—mostly lies (poorly) designed to help him get ahead, or as emendations to previous lies—give the show a trajectory. From the beginning, viewers understand where it’s all going. Cross is known for writing some of the funniest, smartest sketch comedy of the 1990s, sharing with soon-to-be comedic forces like Ben Stiller, Dino Stamatopoulos, Judd Apatow, and Bob Odenkirk a 1993 Emmy for the critically lauded, quickly canceled The Ben Stiller Show. With Odenkirk, he produced Mr. Show, one of the greatest sketch comedies of all time.
So it’s surprising that he’s written a sitcom so reliant on physical comedy, and cast himself in the rather one-dimensional, repetitive main role. The show’s best lines possess a crackling absurdity. “I have the strength of 20 ponies!” Todd Margaret says after drinking a can of Thunder Muscle, “The strength of Zeus after he made love to a bionic hippopotamus!” Or, in describing his summers with his (imaginary) English father, “Every Saturday we’d get some fish and chips, head to the park and watch The Who.” Or, as he prepares to leave for England by telling his cat to ration the massive supply of food and water he’s left, he points to the stockpile and says, “Made you some steps.”
Such moments remind us why we love David Cross. It’s less clear why we want to wade so much predictable “cringe comedy” in order to find them.