The rebooted sketch series fails to justify its existence

By Ray Rahman
July 27, 2016 at 05:23 PM EDT
Tyler Golden/The CW
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There was a time when, for many, the phrase “You are now watching MADtv” was as much a weekly fixture as “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” Fox’s bygone sketch series (which itself was an outgrowth of the once-powerful Mad Magazine) ran from 1995 to 2009, and some of those years were even good. Now The CW is betting that there’s enough of an appetite (or at least nostalgia) to justify a reboot of the series that gave us such stars as Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Ike Barinholtz, Alex Borstein, and other quality performers. Are they right?

At first blush, it would seem no. Inconsistent and lacking any urgency, Tuesday’s premiere episode passed without making the case for its existence. Not that it didn’t try: The series brought back vintage MADtv stars Will Sasso and Nicole Sullivan to try and lend the reboot some of that old magic. It didn’t quite work.

The failings began with the very first proper sketch, in which “Wolf Blitzer” hosts something called “The Trulywed Game.” Bill and Hillary Clinton are the contestants on one side, Donald and Melania Trump on the other. The humor is not just lame, but also stale. It’s more or less a rip-off of SNL’s hugely popular “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches; Adam Ray’s Blitzer is basically a clone of Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek. The political impressions are competent, but unlike, say, Kate McKinnon’s Hillary, these bring no new insight or unique inspiration.

Predictably, the political stuff doesn’t stop there: The premiere offers a Hillary Clinton-Elizabeth Warren combo skit that imagines Warren as a Def Jam-style insult comic. “Vote for this black bitch Hillary 2016!” she shouts. Hard pass.

There was one highlight from the night, and it also happened to be the easiest joke to make. In a goofy Game of Thrones sketch, none of the characters can keep track of what’s happening. Simple but effective! GoT followers, at least, will get some laughs out of it. A second (yes, second!) GoT sketch also works well — in short, Ned Stark becomes the Donald Trump of Westeros. The joke relies on the performance, and luckily, the performance was pretty good.

Less successful was the episode’s send-up of The Bachelor, despite the fact that it featured real-life former contestants Courtney Robertson and The Twins (a.k.a. Haley and Emily). The gimmick is that Kenny Rogers is somehow the season’s Bachelor — likely just an excuse to let Will Sasso do his Rogers impression. A thin premise, but in the end, just enough jokes landed to make it worthwhile.

Only one sketch doesn’t rely on current events or impression-based pop culture parodies, and it’s an oddball: A woman takes a guy out on a date only to find that her musician ex is performing at the restaurant. The bit never quite pops, but it was refreshing to see the show do something that was made up from scratch. 

There’s also a Dora the Explorer sketch that seems more random than anything, though it does try to comment on Hispanic-American race relations in a way SNL usually doesn’t (or can’t). That’s always been one of MADtv’s virtues: Diversity — not just the fact that the cast reflects America, but that the sketches utilize it to send up matters of race, ethnicity, and class. (It’s not hard trace to a line from Key and Peele back to MADtv’s heyday.) It’s good to see the new iteration give it a stab, and hopefully their efforts will become better (or at least more relevant) over time.

Speaking of the cast, there are some standouts. Judging by just this first episode, it’s not hard to imagine many of the cast members — particularly Amir K and Michelle Oritz — becoming breakouts known outside of the program. Yet a lot of time is and space is also given over to the returning players. Apparently, the plan is to bring people back every week; the next episode will feature Ike Barinholtz and Bobby Lee. It’s obvious why they would decide to do this, but you have to wonder if putting their splashier alums on the stage so much takes away some of the oxygen from the show’s upstarts.

In tone and style, the new MADtv will probaby please at least some fans who remember the original fondly. But one major thing has changed since that series left the air all those years ago: the importance of viral content. Key and Peele’s success owes a lot to breakout sketches that took over the internet, while SNL clearly gears about half their weekly content towards online virality. The late-night Js (Jimmy, James, and Jimmy) have exploited that formula as well.

The new MADtv fails in that department. There’s nothing that jumps out as a next-morning must-share. Nor does it have the subtle wit or subversive element of its modern peers like Friends of the People. And while that’s a hard level to reach (just ask Stephen Colbert), a sketch series in 2016 should try harder, at least (or especially) on their first episode out of the gate. 

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