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'W/Bob and David' picks up where the fondly remembered 'Mr. Show' left off

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

Comedy has lately moved closer to the center of what we talk about when we talk about television — the anti-hero boom of the first decade and change of the 21st century is now giving way to, or at least making room in the Public Conversation for, the likes of Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, Aziz Ansari and so on and so forth.

Leapfrogging that boom to land squarely in this new big bucket of laughs comes the reunited team of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, whose series "Mr. Show," sometimes called "Mr. Show With Bob and David," was cut loose by HBO the year before "The Sopranos" arrived to cast its long shadow over the medium. "W/Bob and David" is their new series, four episodes available via Netflix as of Friday.

It is technically — perhaps "legally" would be the better word — not a revival of the earlier show. But notwithstanding some unavoidable changes in tone, it mostly is.

Returning viewers will find the same mix of media parodies, phony commercials and surrealistic playlets solidly grounded in human behavior. As before, under the original influence of "Monty Python's Flying Circus," segments are tangentially linked — incidental material in one may resurface significantly in another — giving each episode the feeling of a journey.

Also as before, some bits are filmed and some played before a live audience; we hear laughter even in the filmed bits. (A very 20th century effect indeed.)

There is the same love of slightly silly names: Amora Pendragon, Gibby Whangdoodle, Gilvin Daughtry. As a subscription service, Netflix, like HBO, allows the writers latitude in language — in one sketch profanity becomes a kind of superpower — and subject matter. Reality peeks in at times. Cross, paying a pizza boy: "Here, this is fake, take all of it."

Cross is 51 now; Odenkirk, 53. But only a sketch mocking tech culture — Cross' grandly mullet-haired "digital soothsayer" spouts Ted talky gibberish in an accent nicked off of Russell Brand — seems generationally old. Even the Richard Branson reference might require a footnote in 2015.

More often, they're playing around with power and perception, as in a remake of "Roots," called "Better Roots," in which the white plantation owners are portrayed as aggressively kind (slavery, says Cross' director, "has so many negative connotations, if you bother to look it up; we're using the words 'helper' and 'helping'").

The first sketch, whose punchline arrives only at the episode's end, introduces the idea of death, with Paul F. Tompkins critically warned off red meat by doctor Jill Talley. "I ain't joking, and this ain't no show, mister," she tells him, referentially.

In the second, Odenkirk and Cross emerge onstage from a time machine, which bears a likeness in more ways than one to a portable toilet, and in which they have been merely sitting for 16 years, to find Talley, Tompkins and fellow former castmates Jay Johnston, John Ennis and Brian Posehn. (Other "Mr. Show" veterans, including Scott Aukerman, Tom Kenny and Mary Lynn Rajskub, are also on board, along with new friends like Paget Brewster and Keegan-Michael Key.)

Most are better known than when "Mr. Show" was last seen. Odenkirk from "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul," Cross from "Arrested Development." (The third season of his own IFC series, "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret," is due next year.) Posehn and Tompkins are faces familiar to anyone who follows TV comedy; Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob and the Ice King, is the Mel Blanc of the 21st century.

But for all their subsequent accomplishments, there are some notes that can be played, certain rhythms that can be found, only by getting the band back together. So while it is funny, sometimes very funny, it also has the quality of a gift — a gift from the artists to themselves and one another as much as to their audience.

There is a sweetness about it, a ripeness, a sense of fate, an air not quite autumnal but late-summery, let's say, that adds piquancy to the japery. Time is woven into its fabric.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'w/Bob & David'

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime, starting Friday

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