Two new half-hour comedies this week follow the adventures of aspiring entertainers - Mr. Robinson on NBC is a warm, traditional sitcom about a funk musician who doubles as a high school teacher, and Hulu's Difficult People, about a pair of would-be comics, offers a sarcastic take on the Seinfeld experience.
Actor, stand-up comic, and singer Craig Robinson, 43, has amassed a nice following with roles in Pineapple Express, Hot Tub Machine, and This Is the End, not to mention his droll turn as warehouse foreman-turned-sports agent Darryl Philbin on The Office.
The Chicago native, who has a master's degree in education, digs into his personal history to play a Chicago high school music teacher in the likable, if sometimes flat, Mr. Robinson. It premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday on NBC.
Robinson stars as Craig Robinson, a semiprofessional keyboard player and singer who plays in a band he cofounded with his brother Ben (Brandon T. Jackson). Called Nasty Delicious, the five-member band serves 1970s-style funk with a humorous twist (one song is about making chocolate muffins, another about falling in love with a mirror).
The band has a regular gig at a small club but is otherwise floundering. Craig makes ends meet as a substitute music teacher. It's a job he's eager to take up again when he learns his old high school flame, Victoria (Meagan Good), is an English teacher at their alma mater.
In the pilot Craig wins his students' affection and loyalty with his relaxed bearing and his enthusiasm for music. The kids even help him woo Victoria by arranging a cute musical production number with a prom theme.
Though this is hardly Glee, Mr. Robinson does include two or three fun songs per episode. The music helps make up for the show's otherwise weak story lines.
Much of the comedy is generated by Craig's relationships with his coworkers. Asif Ali (The 4 to 9ers: The Day Crew) is typecast as the Asian science teacher; Spencer Grammer (Rick and Morty) is appropriately sexy as Ashleigh, a math teacher who moonlights as a pole dancer; Ben Koldyke (Back in the Game) is good as the typically thick phys ed instructor; and Tim Bagley (Web Therapy) is effective as their boss, Supervisor Dalton, a frustrated musician who is Nasty Delicious' biggest fan.
They all are outshone by Peri Gilpin (Frazer), who is great as Principal Taylor, a former rock groupie who makes inappropriate sexual remarks about Craig's physique even as she's scolding him for being unprofessional. One episode has her go back to the drugged-out Brit rocker (Gary Cole) who wrote a song inspired by their love titled "Kiss Me, Spank Me, Love Me."
Mr. Robinson is fine as it goes. Despite its use of quite a lot of off-color jokes, it is a warm, amusing, if forgettable, little ditty that delivers some solid amusement.
Hulu's sitcom, Difficult People - the streaming site will begin posting Wednesday - raises an important philosophical question: Can you enjoy a sitcom if you loathe its lead characters?
I think not.
A mean-spirited, hipper-than-thou exercise in comedic navel-gazing, the Seinfeld-ian series is about the travails of a pair of aspiring New York comedians who seem to lead miserable lives.
"Our lives are garbage," Billy Epstein (Billy Eichner) tells his pal Julie Kessler (Julie Klausner) as the duo wait for the curtain to rise at a matinee of Annie on Broadway. "And it's the world's fault."
The scene, early in the pilot, has the friends go on to complain bitterly that the lead role in Annie is being played by the understudy. When a woman asks them to refrain from swearing in front of her two kids, they refuse and begin shouting obscenities.
Billy earns his daily bread as a waiter. In one scene, he refuses to take an order until he finishes reading his tweets.
"How can you think of food when the Huffington Post just posted what George and Amal Clooney would look like as Simpsons characters?" he tells the customers.
For her part, Julie posts TV episode summaries for some blog.
"I'm funny when I write mean things about TV shows," she complains to Billy. "How come no one's hired me to write for one?"
Perhaps it's because you insult prospective employers?
Difficult People, which costars Gabourey Sidibe as Billy's insufferably rude boss and Andrea Martin as Julie's narcissistic therapist mom, doesn't really have dialog. Instead of talking, characters quote tweets about celebs or make cruel, cutting remarks about one another.
Billy and Julie, whose careers seem to be going nowhere, are both in their mid-30s, a point in their careers when despair has begun to replace hope. Perhaps that's supposed to explain why they are so insufferable.
There's so very little to enjoy in Difficult People, it's a surprise to learn it was exec-produced by two greats, Amy Poehler (Parks & Recreation) and Dave Becky (Louie).
The series is thoroughly derivative and utterly parasitic on the most ephemeral, shallow aspects of the culture. And to add insult to injury, it treats the very culture it feeds upon for material with utter contempt.
If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, Difficult People is a show about perpetually bored, unlikable people who comment on tweets about shows that are about nothing.
It is an utterly empty exercise in futility.