To get on board with Nobodies, you have to have a fascination with—or a least a passing knowledge of—The Groundlings, one of the preeminent improv companies in the U.S., and one that has been the training ground for countless comedy stars as well as some people toiling away in the industry watching their former peers rise through the ranks. The TV Land series covers some of the same thematic material as Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, asking the question: What happens when some friends make it big and others don’t? Only it removes that movie’s melancholy from the equation and injects it with the spirit of Ricky Gervais’ Extras, imagining a Hollywood where every person exists in a state of delusion. Melissa McCarthy is a jet-setter who can’t figure out Facetime. Ben Falcone thinks he should play the husband of an American president with an Australian accent. The central trio of nobodies—Hugh Davidson, Larry Dorf, and Rachel Ramras, also the show’s creators—are hangers-on who can’t help but put their feet in their respective mouths.
Like their onscreen personas, Davidson, Dorf, and Ramras are Groundlings veterans whose most significant credits to date are in the world of animation. In actuality, they worked on Adult Swim’s Mike Tyson Mysteries and Cartoon Network’s The Looney Tunes Show. In Nobodies, they are biding their time on The Fartlemans, a kiddie program about, yes, a family that farts, while trying to sell a screenplay about a man who assumes the role of first lady. But, whereas in the context of the series they are desperate to impress their more recognizable acquaintances, it’s evident that their real-life pals are more than willing to lend a hand. The likes of Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, Jason Bateman, and Bob Odenkirk pop up. And far from being unreachable and out-of-touch, McCarthy and Falcone are executive producers. That jolly collaboration means the plot requires a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief that is hard to muster at times. Regardless of what Hugh, Larry, and Rachel are going through, the Groundlings seems like a lovely, supportive community.
The cameos are both a selling point and an Achilles’ heel. The first episode leans on them so heavily that it’s hard to get a read on who exactly the fictional Hugh, Larry, and Rachel are. Untalented idiots? Or just poor schmucks who got the short end of the stick? Initially, they are indistinguishable from one another, but that changes in the ensuing installments. Larry is clueless. Rachel is high-strung and motivated. Hugh is reasonable, but lives in a state of arrested development—perhaps a reference to the fact that he had a bit part on the beloved sitcom of that name. There’s an underlying feeling that these three aren’t exactly creative soulmates, but have been forced together out of sheer stasis. It would be inaccurate to describe them as lovable losers, but their dogged persistence makes it hard not to root form them, even as they refuse to behave in any sort of sensible fashion.
Save for a marvelous monologue from Kristen Wiig about buttholes—truly, it’s genius—the appearances from honest-to-god famous people are largely rote. That’s arguably on purpose. For the most part, the celebs are presented as just normal, well, celebs, so ingrained in the privilege of being successful that they either don’t notice Larry, Rachel, and Hugh flailing right in front of them or are actively repulsed by them. The funnier material comes from guest appearances by other Groundlings alums, who are actually tasked with doing some great character work. Michael Hitchcock is delightful as a Phish-loving, touchy-feely producer, while Mitch Silpa is hilariously deadpan as Rachel’s ex’s new husband, a high-powered agent. Michael McDonald, who is yet another executive producer, plays sex-obsessed therapist, utilizing his excellent dry delivery.
There’s a different version of Nobodies that one could see existing in this television landscape. It would air on, say, FX or HBO, and be an introspective examination of the psychological toll of being so close to so many people who have achieved a goal that’s still out of reach. But Dorf, Davidson, and Ramras aren’t interested in getting particularly deep. They are looking to provoke bigger laughs and more visceral cringes. And, for a few nobodies, they do a pretty good job.