Tuesday, April 23, 2024

“In the Know,” a Promising Satire of NPR That Never Quite Tunes In

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“In the Know,” a new stop-motion comedy series on Peacock from Zach Woods, Brandon Gardner, and Mike Judge, begins with sounds familiar to any NPR listener: thoughtful hmm-ing, the performance of active listening. “Oh, that’s interesting,” a pasty, bare-chested man, Lauren Caspian (Woods), says to himself in a tiled bathroom. He has a wraithlike build, a pointy chin, glasses, and the fulsome, wavy hairdo of an Ira Glass or a Michael Barbaro. He rehearses some pauses and prompts, sounding almost too intellectually engaged, nearly grunting. “Tell me more. . . . I guess what I’m wondering is . . . mmm!” When Lauren talks, his eyebrows dance, and his eyes seem to recede behind his lenses. “I’m Lauren Caspian, and this is ‘In the Know,’ ” he says, twice. A new angle reveals that he’s in front of a mirror—mercifully, not on the toilet. Then, whispering to his reflection: “You’re a fucking god.”

“In the Know,” a workplace comedy with a talented ensemble cast, wants to be clear up front—Lauren Caspian, NPR’s “third most popular host,” is grotesque, and so are other more-enlightened-than-thou types like him, and us. At the office, Lauren brags about recognizing the humanity of an unhoused man “when the rest of the world refused”; his colleague Fabian (Caitlin Reilly), a scowling researcher who looks monstrously underslept, enters with “I was just attacked on the subway. . . . Some meathead’s aftershave triggered one of my migraines.” Fabian is mostly a one-note character, and that’s the note—peeved outrage. The series eventually becomes funny, but, like an episode of Lauren’s interview show, it requires patience and the ability to suffer past the insufferable. The laughs tend to come not from the bigger ideas, like the satire of current liberal norms (the meathead’s aftershave being an “attack”), but from smaller details, including little surprises in the punch lines. “The way this country treats the neurosensitive makes me want to firebomb a Bath & Body Works,” Fabian says.

The more appealing presence of the rest of the ensemble helps. This NPR office’s workers include the kindly and long-suffering co-executive producer Barb (J. Smith-Cameron, delightful as ever), the warmly nerdy sound guy Carl (Carl Tart), the himbo intern Chase (Charlie Bushnell), and the whacked-out, aging culture critic Sandy (Judge, clearly enjoying himself), whose cadaverous body and haunted vibe seem en route to the celestial plane. (He says things like “Ken Kesey once showed me an early draft of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ when it was still called ‘Untitled Mental Hospital Comedy.’ ”) Barb gets routinely ridiculed for being a capitalist overlord, but she’s a gentle soul trying to make the best of everything. “Barb, you might be content as a hamster in the wheel of late capitalism, but I refuse to treat our listeners like udders to be squeezed,” Lauren says, before a pledge drive to support his show. Later, Carl, who harbors a secret crush on Barb, observes that the staff is being harsh to her. “I don’t mind,” she tells him. “It just means they feel safe. It’s like I’m the guest of honor at a roast that goes on for my entire career.”

Once the series gets cooking, Lauren ends up saying some very funny things. Woods, who came up through the improv world, is in his element when he has a chance to riff. The show-within-the-show’s interviews, which take the form of video calls between Lauren and real (non-animated) human celebrities, yield unexpected comedy the way that the off-piste interviews on “The Colbert Report” once did—as when Lauren praises “Queer Eye” to its co-star Jonathan Van Ness by explaining how it takes “rightful revenge on heterosexual society.” “A physically imposing five-person platoon thunders into the hetero’s home and tells them to change everything about themselves or they’ll never be loved,” Lauren says. “And I think it’s just wonderful.” Van Ness goes along with this, and then Lauren, who has a girlfriend, proudly offers up an identity insight of his own. “I like to think of myself as a sapiosexual,” he says. “I’m sexually attracted to ideas.” Later, he asks Roxane Gay what book she’d burn for warmth if she were stuck in a library during a blizzard, then answers the question himself: “For me, it would be Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink.’ ”

The incidental writing and world-building can hit the mark, especially when “In the Know” feels as if it’s having fun rather than airing grievances. Staffers hang out in a lactation pod, in an office where nobody breast-feeds; pledge-drive contributions are heralded with the call of the common loon. But the show’s creators and performers have previously produced Zeitgeisty comedies, full of brilliantly conceived characters we hadn’t seen onscreen before, that “In the Know” often fails to equal. Judge created “Beavis and Butt-Head,” and voiced both of those iconic idiots; he wrote and directed “Office Space,” deservedly a cult hit and a smart satire; and he co-created, among other shows, the great “King of the Hill” and “Silicon Valley.” Woods, who played a tech dweeb on “Silicon Valley” (and a corporate weenie on “The Office”), has excelled at performing highly specific characters who felt new, too—variations on a particular kind of lovable incel. Caitlin Reilly, who makes the best of her role as the strident Fabian, is well known for her blazingly funny TikTok videos, playing characters (bro-ish comedians, celebrities apologizing, “woman who needs you to know it’s her birthday”) that are almost unnerving in their acerbic, perceptive accuracy. “In the Know” doesn’t have that kind of revelatory wow. Lauren and Fabian could be right-wing caricatures of sanctimonious liberals (I found myself thinking, Ron DeSantis would like this); other characters feel familiar from sitcoms. Zonked-out Sandy recalls Creed from “The Office”; too-hot-to-know-better Chase has notes of “30 Rock” ’s Cerie and “The Good Place” ’s Jason Mendoza.

But the essential problem is that jokes about NPR—especially these jokes about NPR—feel about as timely and fresh as jokes about granola and tote bags. “In the Know” is a streaming series, with all the freedom and possibility that entails, but it uses that freedom to shoot fish in a barrel. (For example, Lauren’s smug gesture of letting a homeless man use the office’s bathroom ends with Lauren having a diarrhea crisis and howling atop a box.) Woods has said that “In the Know” is a self-parody of “privileged, well intentioned, guilty hypocrites” who are “isolated in our respective echo chambers,” and that he wants it to “start conversations.” But the show’s politics are floppy—workwise and culture-wise, “Office Space” and “Silicon Valley” were far more sophisticated—and in an era when all of media seems to be imploding, with gutting layoffs at places, including NPR, the mockery of people like Lauren and Fabian, who are trying to live thoughtful, ethical lives and are very annoying about it, seems beside the point. “In the Know,” packed with good writing and performers, could be a great show if it wanted to. More interesting subjects in and around NPR are there for the mocking. The question is whether the creators want to keep hitting soft targets—or whether, as Butt-Head once put it, they “just came here to break stuff.” ♦



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