Dr. Brown might be the least-known of the comics of The Characters, but he’s got strange similarities to Chip Baskets, the hapless would-be clown protagonist of Zack Galifianakis’ Baskets. For one thing, the burly, bearded Brown (aka, Phil Burgers) bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Galifianakis. For another, like Chip, Brown attended a prestigious French clowning academy (the École Philippe Gaulier in Brown’s case). Brown (who, unlike poor Chip, actually graduated) has, also unlike Chip, gone on to substantial success, with acclaimed stage shows that partake of physical, cringe, and absurd comedy in equal measure. (It also wouldn’t be hard to see him starring in a show called Burgers.) His concluding episode of The Characters’ first season hits on all three of those traits, while pulling off an impressive technical feat at the same time, a comic juggling act (minus actual juggling) that’s as challenging to watch as, no doubt, it was to pull off.
Shot in one continuous take and taking the form of a trio of repeating stories, the episode starts with Brown (later identified in this character as Sam) under a hairdryer in a salon. A fire breaks out, he wrenches himself (and the dryer) out onto the sidewalk, and accosts a security guard, Terry (Tony White) who’s pulling the shutters on a business where Sam thinks he’s left his wallet. They have an angry confrontation until Sam recognizes Terry from a news story about a sinking ship. When Terry confides that his friend died in the accident, Sam invites him to his friend’s 40th birthday “shindig,” an offer Terry eventually accepts. Sam walks away.
Crossing the street, a lady continues what appears to be their ongoing gospel singing lessons before peeling off, just as Sam peels off his Hawaiian shirt, walks up some stairs into an apartment and ducks his head under the sink. When he emerges, he’s sporting long hair and a baseball cap (a deft switch by Brown) and is now Randy, a plumber. After awkwardly flirting with the exceedingly patient lady of the house (Vanessa, played by Tara Summers) by repeatedly knocking on her door after he’s left—first to give her his business’ fridge magnet, then to ask for it back—again, their awkward conversation turns into a grudgingly accepted invitation to come to his friend’s shindig, although now it’s his 41st birthday. Randy leaves, whinily haggles over a motorcycle he’s arranged to buy on the street, then walks on, puts on a curly black wig, and approaches a couple having a strange conversation in the window of a cafe (“I’m tired of the land…”).
In the episode’s first real outright comic setpiece, curly-haired guy (later identified as Dave) can’t find his way inside, despite his friend (the guy sick of the land) waving him toward the door twice, then actually going outside to lead him in. Dave’s repeated disappearances out of frame, only to reappear once again pantomiming his confusion, partake of the old Buster Keaton dictum “the audience loves a slow thinker,” as Dave’s inability to gain ingress takes on more and more absurd depths. At one point he reappears with a sleeve torn off his t-shirt and bloody scratches, while another time, he’s prepared to pull a Do The Right Thing through the window with a garbage can, only to trip and spill trash everywhere. (He ducks out of frame, only to show up pushing a broom.) It’s a great piece of physical comedy and comic timing from Brown and series director Andrew Gaynord—the biggest laugh comes when Dave, nodding in apparent understanding of the way in, instead reappears toting a long ladder. Oh, and then a bear attacks.
When Dave finally does make it in, shirt shredded, his friend is already leaving. Dave dons a denim jacket, orders a coffee and butts into a conversation with some increasingly argumentative Russians on laptops, boasting of his vacation Russian and crowding them off the tiny table when the waiter brings him his multiple plates of food. Like with Terry and Vanessa, it’s cringe comedy, as Dave keeps pestering the one remaining Russian (Kirill Nikiforov, as Voychek) once the man’s friends have angrily stormed off. (Russian speakers—what were they arguing about?) Then—you guessed it—Dave invites Voychek to his buddy’s shindig. Voychek accepts.
The three encounters all play around with the same phrases (“we can just grab a Bud Lite or something, real easy”) and the recurring joke that none of Brown’s characters tell anyone the address of the party before walking away, all adding to the episode’s rolling, confident absurdity, something that only intensifies once we (and all the characters) eventually make it to the shindig at a local bar. There, the pattern repeats, with the birthday boy, owing to the very loud bar, mishearing what each couple is talking about, and then Brown’s characters inviting Terry and Vanessa to come to his place instead, using the exact same phrases. (“I can’t hear you. We should go back to my place, it’s more chilled out.”) Voychek, who never makes it inside (“It’s too loud”) accept’s Dave’s invitation on the sidewalk.
When the couples arrive at said apartment one at a time, the absurdity nibbling around the edges of the episode ratchets higher. They all tell the same story about putting someone in an arm bar in a fight. (It makes sense for Terry, who tells it first). The previous visitor is gone as soon as the subsequent Brown character shows up with the next. The picture by the door keeps changing—first it’s Egypt, then Paris, then there’s a smiling African American family. The bear—or guy in a bear suit, of a stuffed version of either—stands at frozen attention in the corner. One by one, Terry, Vanessa, and Voychek accept (their version of) Brown’s abrupt invitation to stay, even though he has to split (“Hey, I gotta bust out for a little bit, but you’re totally welcome to hang out for a little bit, take a shower, take a nap”) while the departing Brown says, inexplicably, “I left a towel for you on your bed.” As it turns out, he’s going outside to relieve himself on a tree, something he’s been admonishing a homeless man about through the episode.
When the Browns return one-by-one and find the apartment empty (although the shower’s running), the episode accelerates further, each Brown speeding through the place, shouting each name in turn and looking for them (in the fridge, in the oven) before bursting out again in a panic. A marching band on his sidewalk blocks his path, he climbs through the backseat of a parked car, now wearing an ill-fitting blonde wig we haven’t seen before. After hurriedly (and unsuccessfully this time) inviting another random passer-by to come to his friend’s shindig, he collapses and the nice gospel lady is there to mop his brow and sing “Steal Away To Jesus” while some of the side characters (although not Terry, Vanessa, or Voychek) bear him, Christ-style, back to the beauty parlor. He sits under the hair dryer. A fire breaks out.
It’s a lot to take in, and that’s not even counting the seemingly isolated sketch where a diner’s hemming inability to decide how his steak should be cooked sees him turning into a werewolf. (“I guess I’ll have the fish,” he concedes in defeat, before disappearing into the crowd at the shindig, taking place through an adjoining door.) As a feat of planning and execution, it’s impressive, Gaynord and Brown’s virtuosity gradually becoming an equal part of the joke. Is it funny? Good question—the whole “can’t find the way into the restaurant” piece is laugh-out-loud surprising, but the episode is more impressively strange than hilarious. There’s an unnerving thrill to all the accumulating absurdity. It reminded me of the “Michael Ellis” episode of Monty Python in the way repetition and variance kept building, the hint that something vaguely sinister was going on. Are all the Brown characters Brown himself? If so, what’s his game in luring these three people to the same place, with the same words? When, reaching his apartment (to eventually find Terry in mid-story), Sam hears muffled sounds of distress down the hall, the very real possibility looms of finding Terry, Vanessa, and/or Voychek bound and gagged behind that door. When it turns out to be a young man angry when Sam removes his gag, it’s just a different kind of inexplicable and unsettling. Or are Sam, Randy, and Dave hopeful figures, breaking through the guarded existence of city folk and reaching out, albeit awkwardly, for friendship?
The Characters has, in giving free rein to eight wildly different comic minds, been necessarily all over the place. This final episode is well-chosen to close things out, as Brown’s meticulously plotted insanity is the sort of comic vision that would find a place pretty much no where else
- And that’s a wrap on The Characters (and my reviews thereof), people. From your comments, I know these episodes have been divisive, but I think that’s not only as it should be, but that this series has been an invaluable source of fascinating, challenging comedy. Say what you want about Netflix (and, as a former employee of a beloved, now-deceased indie video store, I have, at length) but I love this idea for a series. It’s no doubt relatively cost effective for Netflix to do, so I can only hope that The Characters turns into an ongoing institution. As simple as it sounds, turning over a reasonable chunk of cash and a half-hour for interesting, ambitious, and original comedians like these to do literally anything they want is a real gift for comedy fans. It sure felt like one for me. Anyway, thanks for reading, everyone.