Last week, Moonbeam City introduced two mild wrinkles into its anything-goes adult-cartoon universe, one good and one less so: some background details about the neon-soaked ’80s-pastiche city where the show is set (good!) and the direct humiliation of hard-bitten police chief Pizzaz (Elizabeth Banks) via a creepy episode-ending joke about her coerced, extremely reluctant sexual relationship with someone who spent the whole episode sexually harassing her (not so good!). Per production codes, “Lasers and Liars,” this week’s episode, was produced some time before last week’s, and they share the same credited writer, Andrew Weinberg. So charting the episode as a point in the show’s evolution is probably, well, pointless (if anything, it represents a slight devolution, just illustrated out of order). But speaking as a viewer, “Lasers and Liars” does feel like a corrective of sorts to the sour taste left last week. It offers details about Moonbeam City and a storyline for Pizzaz, and integrates them into a satisfying whole.
At first, the idea of Pizzaz Miller revealing a cadre of sisters – named Panache, Charisma, Sophisticata, and, the hilarious kicker, Accoutrement – seems like it does two entirely other things: rehash the common Saturday Night Live sketch engine of having a familiar character joined by a family member who acts just like them, and serve Moonbeam City’s quest to rack up as many gloriously insane character names as possible. But while Pizzaz’s sisters do riff a bit on the furious ball-buster routine Banks has established for the character (complete with their own individual shapes of noirish blind-shadows), and while Panache does serve as a nominal love (which is to say sex) interest for Dazzle, a secondary presence in this episode, the show doesn’t expect Pizzaz’s family to be inherently funny via imitation.
Instead, they’re funny because of their place in Pizzaz’s bizarre but appropriate backstory: former heir to a family that made it fortune mining lasers from the ground (more on that in a moment), she was forced out of the company by her conniving sisters and became a cop out of equal parts honor and spite. The flashback revealing the origin of Moonbeam City, featuring the elder Miller “discovering” lasers that gush from the ground like oil, has a wonderful, inventive surrealism, goofing on the retro-futuristic status of lasers and establishing Moonbeam City as a place founded on garish flash. That the city pays tribute to its origins via a lavish Laser Ball makes sense, especially after the how mentions what the other Miller sisters – and the castrated husbands Dazzle is expected to join – concern themselves with; one of them runs a “gala-awareness charity.” As usual, no one pushes the satire as hard as the weirdness, but, also as usual, a pretty funny joke, and also pretty neat to see it delivered in a big room full of laser fireplaces.
Though the Pizzaz story doesn’t proceed like a bad SNL sketch, “Lasers and Liars” also doesn’t completely lack a sketch-comedy feel. Rad’s subplot, maybe his best of the series so far, plays as close to Will Forte’s strengths as any episode since the pilot. The game is simple: Rad infiltrates Laser Ball, not to expose criminal wrongdoing but to perpetuate the myth that he is, in fact, a wealthy man, the sort of well-to-do individual who might subscribe to Wealth Enthusiast magazine. Why, exactly, Rad wants to do this isn’t really explained; more time is devoted to his attempts to lie about his status to a trio of genuine rich guys, beginning with the premise that he owns a yacht, specifically the WaveTech 9000, and continuing as his new friends find his ridiculous falsehoods oddly believable and beg for more (I suspected, at first, a matching bluff a la Susan’s parents on that episode of Seinfeld where George lies about his beach house, but these rich folks are far less bitter and more gullible).
Endlessly and unconvincingly elaborating on an obvious lie is a favorite Forte routine (see most episodes of The Last Man On Earth for examples of this, both great and a little tiring), and there are echoes of other favorite (if not especially famous) Forte bits in Rad’s subplot. The slow push-in on Rad improvising the “WaveTech 9000 Fight Song,” for example, is an epic filibuster that brings to mind Forte’s brilliant “Sky High Duluth” theme song sketch on SNL (granted, these associations come easier if the mind in question is pretty fixated on Will Forte). Semi-impressively, the episode finds a way to dovetail this extended sequence with the main plot, making for an installment that’s a bit more satisfying, in that long-form-improv sort of way, than just a barrage of decent laughs. This isn’t a perfect Moonbeam City episode – the choicest madness is too confined to the margins, and half of the four regular cast members are marginalized when the show has to introduce the four sisters, multiple boy-toys, the trio of rich guys, and Pizzaz’s father, all in about 20 minutes. But after last week’s disappointment, the show feels more than ever like one whose characters could take on weird little lives of their own.
- This week in Moonbeam City names: Yes, Pizzaz has some similarly and amusingly named sisters. But the stealth hero of the ongoing Moonbeam City name joke is, again, Rad, who is forced to rattle off seemingly hundreds of old-timey bluesman names, none of them real, to the credulous delight of his new friends.