(Amy Schumer) (Photo: Comedy Central)

It’s the recurring question of this season: Has Amy Schumer lost touch with her viewers, and can Inside Amy Schumer succeed if she has? The opening sketch of “Madame President” finds common ground between celebrity and audience—paradoxically, in reviling the muckrakers who feed off the public’s appetite for celebrity news. As the head of TMZ effigy AMZ, Patton Oswalt asks, “Who’s fat, who’s gross, who’s least, who’s most?” as his reporters chitter out loathsome banalities.

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It’s crude but cutting, showing gossip rags haranguing stars at the cruelest moments and spinning stories from non-responses. Amber Tamblyn hurries her sick dog to the vet, harassed by Tag (Tim Meadows) asking, ““Marry, fuck, kill: Helen Mirren, Dame Judi Dench, or Betty White?” Anthony Bourdain lies trapped under a cab as a badgering reporter ignores pleas for “just one more person” to free him. Justin Long bears his father’s casket to a waiting hearse, and AMZ’s camera stays on him as he weeps. In the office, the pitch meeting descends to hellish chaos as Oswalt transforms into a tentacled Lovecraftian beast. Staff members (Meadows, Schumer, Kim Caramele, an immense cockroach, and a pile of shit, now joined by Dracula, Cruella DeVil, and assorted demons) cackle maniacally, feasting on their own flesh instead of the minutia of stars’ lives.

It cannily exposes a hardship Schumer and her guest stars know uncomfortably well, making it easy to laugh with and easy to identify with, even for those audience members whose curiosity creates the problem in the first place. Like last week’s “Brave,” this sketch bridges the gap between performer and audience by reflecting on a shared experience from both sides.

Unfortunately, also like “Brave,” “Madame President” tries to have it both ways, sometimes wryly deconstructing stereotypes, sometimes swallowing them whole. In the episode’s centerpiece, Schumer plays Amily Schinton, the newly inaugurated first female President Of The United States, whose first day in office is also the first day of her menstrual period. I kept waiting for the volta at the end of these trite oh-no-my-period! jokes—the stinger that would anchor the string of lazy stereotypes—but it never came.

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That would be fine if the episode’s titular sketch were funny. Humor doesn’t have to be fresh or sophisticated or subversive; it can be hokey or juvenile or conventional and still be hilarious. (As sophomoric as I find Robert Kelly’s and Jim Norton’s knee-jerk repugnance for “period sex,” I cracked up at Norton’s “Unless you mean 1800, I’m not touching her.”) But this assortment of clichés—sullen irritability, hysterical distraction, chocolate-craving tirades, and a final outburst of “You guys, I can’t be President because I got my period!”—is tired and trite.

Compare that to the sly poke at cultural reticence about menstruation, and at corporate exploitation of that silence, that is “Tampo.” When an office worker (Schumer) tries to tuck a still-wrapped tampon up her sleeve for the long walk to the restroom, her colleagues spot it and recoil in disgust. The solution: Tampo from Baker Street Discreet Feminine Hiders. By simply carrying a full-sized saxophone with her tampon tucked away in a secret compartment—and by teaching herself to play jazz sax, and by personalizing, printing up, and passing out the provided jazz-show fliers, and by performing on command for suspicious co-workers, and by developing a soul patch and a heroin addiction—she can avoid the scrutiny of the office and any embarrassment she might feel over her body’s natural functions.

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The two sketches, running back to back, are funhouse reflections of each other. One mocks sexist biases and one unthinkingly echoes them. One centers around a common experience of everyday women, the other focuses on the pressures on one single prominent woman. One is sharp and funny, the other is shopworn and sloppy.

“Amy Goes Deep” shows Schumer’s ability to forge (or feign) a connection even when it seems unlikely, simply by mirroring her subject’s tone. Speaking with E.M. Thomas, the pseudonymous author of Confessions Of A Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding In Plain Sight, Schumer laughs with her guest over the stigma society imposes on self-identified sociopaths and the laziness of Hollywood screenwriters. But she also validates or waves off uglier revelations, like Thomas’ teenaged drowning of a baby possum. “Well, possums are gross,” Schumer says, laughing, and Thomas blurts out, “Yes, that’s what I thought!”

This interview is a weird mirror image of “DMS5 Girlfriends,” which shows Schumer relaxing in a country cabin with Jessica Williams, Natasha Lyonne, and Abby Elliott as they breezily diagnose—and dismiss—their partners and exes. Lyonne’s old boyfriend is “a total sociopath” for watching an episode of Game Of Thrones without her; Schumer’s ex is “a textbook borderline.” They revile Elliott for gently questioning this pigeonholing, but reassure her that her boyfriend’s actual textbook red-flag behaviors—“He has zero empathy, he sets fires, he tortures small animals”—make him sound “really interesting.” It’s a biting indictment of the ease with which people slap labels on each other, but between the interview and the sketch, Inside Amy Schumer is trying both to challenge assumptions about sociopaths and to play on them.

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In one case, “Madame President” manages to pack its contradictions into one sketch. Shopping in an upscale boutique, Schumer asks for a larger size and, after a few curt, pert responses, the salesperson (Alana O’Brien) leads her through a curtain to “a whole section for your… situation.” This exaggeration of plus-sized marginalization as a clearing in the middle of nowhere is dreamy, even surreal. Wind whips through the open sky. Lena Dunham, clad in a see-through raincoat over pale underwear, capers giddily. O’Brien’s smile as she enticingly peels a tarp from a woodpile for Schumer to try on is a perfect performance of perky, barely veiled contempt.

But this bizarre annex being patronized only by famous (and, hey, not plus-sized) women—and one cow—makes the sketch less a statement about a common experience and more a remark about her own idiosyncratic experience. Schumer conceding to a fatties-be-eating joke at the end only undercuts the joke more.

“Madame President” aims to connect with its audience and to reflect different facets of several themes, but it’s a disjointed, contradictory jumble. Instead of a collection of complex ideas considered from different sides, it’s a mass of ideas and jokes canted crazily at every possible angle. It’s not a thoughtful series of reflections; it’s a hall of mirrors, and even the show doesn’t know which way is out.

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Stray observations

  • It’s hard to hear Patton Oswalt ask, “Who’s fragile? Who’s in a bad place? Who’s on the brink?” I was with two other A.V. Club writers when we heard the news of Michelle McNamara’s death and sat in stunned silence. I’ve been thinking of Oswalt, McNamara, and their daughter every day since.
  • “I read an article about a book about that once.”
  • I was delighted to see Reg E. Cathey return as a member of POTUS’ Cabinet. That goes double for Claudia O’Doherty, who also has a writing credit on this episode.
  • “What’s it like to fuck an architect? It seems like it’d be better.”
  • “Well, he is my dad.”
  • “Are you Lee Patton Oswald? Why don’t you back the fuck off? Are you trying to destroy me?”
  • M.E. Thomas makes the point that, beyond Kim Caramele’s innate talents, her presence on set and in the writers’ room may benefit both Schumer and the show in unexpected ways: “You can probably take things easier from your sister, like criticisms.”

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