When Tom Goes To The Mayor, Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, and other trailblazing projects from Abso Lutely Productions premiered in the mid 2000s, the world was largely unfamiliar with the concept of nightmare television. That applied to critics, too, and as a result, early reviews focused almost exclusively on aesthetic alone—how novel it was that Abso Lutely combined the most unsavory tropes of late-night infomercials with awkward characters (or real-life people), jarring transitions, and pitch-black absurdism.
And yet even as Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim grew in popularity, it wasn’t an Abso Lutely special, but another Adult Swim short, “Too Many Cooks,” that gave nightmare television household familiarity—if not in terminology, then at least in visual recognition. Maybe that’s because “Too Many Cooks” riffed on family sitcoms, a much more accessible and comforting realm of TV than grainy OxiClean commercials. Whatever the case, suddenly everyone and their grandmother—not just Cartoon Network’s night owls—was aware of the bizarre seventh-circle-of-hell programming that populates Adult Swim in the wee, small hours. That certainly didn’t make the hallmarks of nightmare television obsolete, but it did challenge critics to talk about more than just its surface-level freakiness when reviewing it.
So, just to get it out of the way, the new seasons of Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule and Decker (now tacked with the subtitle Unclassified) feature all the checkpoints that fans have come to love about both Abso Lutely series. For the former, that means John C. Reilly’s mentally impaired man-child attempting to learn about a different everyday topic or occupation on each episode, with disastrous, often horrific results. The rotten cherry on top is that every installment looks like it’s been played back through a fanged VCR, complete with news updates from the Channel 5 rogues’ gallery. (In the premiere, Scott Clam alerts viewers that Kragg’s River has been poisoned by Myer’s Superfoods and that “all the clams are rotten.”)
Decker attempts to be slicker in its production than Check It Out!, the joke being that, like Michael Bay’s Transformers films, the bigger the budget Tim Heidecker gets (the version of Heidecker that exists within the On Cinema At The Cinema universe, at least), the worse his product looks. No matter how many green-screen effects get added; no matter how much digitized blood squirts from a terrorist’s shot-open neck, this is still Heidecker’s CIA agent—in his own words—trying to imitate Tom Cruise and coming off more like Donald Trump.
Digging deeper, both season premieres examine characters who have an extremely warped sense of their own masculinity. As different as Steve Brule and Jack Decker (or, more accurately, Heidecker as Heidecker’s id as Jack Decker) are, both of them strive for the most stereotypical (and untrue) idea of what makes someone a true man. When Brule visits a used-car lot, his ideal vehicle is a “cherry-red humdinger” of a convertible. It’s the kind of automobile that instantly becomes a mid-life crisis joke, the kind that gets a wah-wah-pedal guitar riff and a shade-tip from Brule when he sees it glimmering on the showroom floor. That kind of butt-rock lustiness permeates the entire episode. Even a conversation about a Ford Model T inspires a fantasy for Brule, one where he’s flanked by a trio of women who can’t get enough of him laying on the old-timey horn.
Given the childlike nature of the character, it’s never implied that Brule actually wants a flashy car or that the idea of a Model T being a chick magnet is actually appealing to him. He’s just doing what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing as a red-blooded, heterosexual, American male, imitating what he’s seen in movies and beer commercials. In his stunted worldview, a nice car equals American success. And American success equals big-chested women.
Decker’s sense of machismo feels just as outdated, as if the exaggerated version of Heidecker has learned everything there is to know about masculinity and coolness from hyper-violent ’80s action movies. But unlike Brule, it’s more than just imitation—there’s a genuine pathos in the way Jack Decker throws around his weight. As seen in the fake film-review show/Decker companion piece On Cinema, this fictionalized Heidecker is plagued by the nastiest type of loneliness and self-doubt. Jack Decker is amazing at everything he does—marksmanship, seducing stewardesses, intimidating terrorists who have hijacked a plane, all of it—because the man playing him hates himself so much. It’s why he surrounds himself with characters like President Jay Davidson (Joe Estevez) and Special Agent King(s)ton—mild-mannered schlubs who constantly get berated by Decker for being cowardly and inept. It’s also why Heidecker gives this season a framing device that allows for endless Decker adventures for the rest of time, even after the character’s long dead.
In that way, Heidecker’s Trump comparison feels more apt than ever. When he started amping up Jack Decker’s ugly patriotism, xenophobia, and already bloated self-worth in the Decker webseries, it initially felt like low-hanging fruit designed to target conservatives. But as the Donald’s presidential campaign has moved from being an “It’ll never happen” joke to a “Jesus this might actually happen” joke, the character has become more and more prescient. Does Trump’s increasingly ballooning ego come completely from intense self-hatred the way fake Heidecker’s does? Probably not. His own dick-measuring pomposity probably lies somewhere between Decker and Steve Brule’s attempts at machismo: fueled by antiquated ideas of what a man’s man should be like, but also from a black part of the soul that’s real enough to be scary.
Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule
Created by: John C. Reilly, Tim Heidecker, and Eric Wareheim
Starring: John C. Reilly
Returns: Friday, June 17 at 12:15 a.m. Eastern on Adult Swim
Format: Quarter-hour live-action comedy
Season-four premiere watched for review