Written By Matthew Haviland
Synopsis: In the first installment of this Twilight Zone–style anthology series, Dennis Murphy (Eric Wareheim) moves into a sunny suburban cul-de-sac where his neighbor Brenner (Tim Heidecker) asks him over to watch a sports game. When Dennis refuses the invitation, Brenner begins terrorizing him.
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are the ultimate hipster trailblazers. With almost zero name recognition beyond their existing fans, Tim and Eric have quietly ushered an undercurrent of bizarre humor into the media with shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! featuring a wheezing parade of regular people, celebrity impersonators, and celebrity guests including, among many others, Will Ferrell (as a salesman of children dressed as clowns), Zach Galifinakis (whom they helped catapult into fame), and John C. Reilly (as a mentally challenged news correspondent who gives health advice), stuttering through their groundbreaking and seemingly unwatchable (until-you-can’t-breathe-from-laughter) Adult Swim comedies. When a friend has to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Dude, you’re shouting,” because you’re laughing so hard, you know somebody’s breaking through the sound barrier of funny. And you also know that given such a compliment, Tim Heidecker would turn around with a borderline psychotic expression and say, “What?”
Plainly speaking, you’ve probably seen Tim and Eric’s bastard children elsewhere. What clinches the hipster cred is that Tim and Eric’s shows have probably also inspired you to change the channel more than once, and perhaps even say, “That show sucks.” But if you thought Zach Galifinakis was hilarious in The Hangover (bad sequels or not, almost everyone did), you were getting buzzed partly on Tim and Eric. Even in this golden age of great, authentic television, where uncompromising series like Arrested Development have become standard favorites, where somebody can mention David Lynch’s bizarre Twin Peaks and seven people who were in diapers when it aired will jump to say, “I love that show!” The audience for Tim and Eric’s great Adult Swim comedies (each show mutating from the last like sneezing, mutant patients in a hospital) has remained small and vaguely smelling of cheese doodles. Even Netflix failed to make them household names, after streaming Heidecker’s brilliant indie brooder The Comedy and Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. Admitted, the latter opens with a Johnny Depp impersonator and takes place in an abandoned shopping mall where one man sells used toilet paper and Ray Wise from Twin Peaks and Mad Men bathes people in feces. You can still say, “I love Tim and Eric,” and get blank stares, but two out of three people who recognize their stuff will mutter, “Oh, that show…”
Enter Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories. Fourth time’s the charm, right? Before the show even premiered, reviewers were calling it one of the best shows on television. Making such a grand statement about a fifteen-minute program airing at 12:15 am on Cartoon Network takes some brass confidence. Well, what can a humble television critic say? Tim and Eric deliver. And this time, they deliver like never before.
Bedtime Stories features a self-contained horror story every week, complete with new guest stars (and presumably Tim and Eric), in the tradition of anthology shows like The Twilight Zone. And though last year’s 30-minute “pilot episode,” Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories: Haunted House, felt like a hit-or-miss retread of well-worn (for these guys) comic ground, this year’s first episode, “Hole,” feels familiar in a good way, but otherwise thoroughly rejuvenated. As the creators have said in interviews, they’re trying something new with this series, and the anthology format allows them to flex considerable muscle on a new basketball court—psychological horror.
From the moment business-casual Dennis Murphy (Eric Wareheim) meets his neighbor Brenner (Tim Heidecker), a pushy beefhead in reflective glasses, there’s a genuinely creepy vibe. Tim Heidecker shows off his dramatic chops (see: The Comedy) with a threatening presence that’s simultaneously funny and disturbing. Eric Wareheim—who’s consistently shown less comic range than his partner—plays his usual “befuddled straight-man” persona as a cypher for the audience. It’s a testament to his performance that when he goes to game night at Brenner’s, we’re legitimately nervous for him as he stands in front of a couch full of slobbering sports fans next to their psychotic ring leader, who makes the phrase “nacho cheese” sound like a concealed threat and waves at his friends like they’re a group of hungry dogs.
The comedy also works, and that’s where Bedtime Stories fully realizes its uniqueness. Truly scary horror is impressive on its own, but Tim and Eric show their tonal mastery by continuing to budge our sense of unease into laughter. When Brenner first invites Dennis to game night, his description of their schedule and what Eric should bring over keeps going for almost two minutes straight, through endless variations of appetizer choices, bro speak, and “ziti.” Tim Heidecker plays the script like a piccolo. By transcending the hit-or-miss “keep doing something until it’s funny” Family Guy routine, he doesn’t merely build up to your laughter, but brings you through an evolving melody of chuckles.
Moreover, the laughs feel fresher than anything these guys have done in years. For longtime Tim and Eric fans, that’s heartening news. What made a lot of their work so genius was how wrenching the sketches were. One of Will Forte’s Awesome Show appearances, for example, found him clenching his jaw, holding back rage and tears, as he showed the audience a quilt he knitted with a black square: “And this square represents my father.” Bedtime Stories allows these emotions to spread out over the course of eleven minutes instead of impressionistic three-minute bursts. Unlike before, when sketches would throw you into laughter or shocked grimaces and then peel out behind a star fade, “Hole” felt like a really good episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? The direction of the campfire story is obvious from the beginning, and this actually enhances the anguish as you’re gently guided deeper into a funhouse where you know the clowns might bite, but hope they don’t.
My Introduction to Fiction Writing professor described a good short story as something that makes you feel like you just ate a hearty dinner. Something that feels complete. Since so many television shows are ongoing stories, feeling full after watching a show doesn’t happen very often. Even with my favorite programs, triple-A fare like Breaking Bad and Twin Peaks (and even shows like The Simpsons, where each episode is a self-contained story), that gut-level satisfaction almost never happens. Even when you go to the movies, how often do you walk out of the theater rubbing your belly? It happens, but rarely enough that sometimes you almost forget it can happen. Then you see Pulp Fiction, The Place Beyond the Pines, or that jaw-dropping 90-minute episode of Louie where his younger self starts smoking pot, and you remember, “This is what satisfaction feels like.” Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories accomplishes several things very well, but perhaps the most telling accomplishment, and what makes it potentially one of the best new shows on television, is that everything comes together so well within a story that leaves you absolutely satisfied. Burp.