When the first “Time Angels” episode aired last year, I wrote that NTSF was in full-on “fuck this, just go with it” mode. For this season’s installment of that sort-of spinoff, the show went even further. Only two regular cast members appear in an episode co-written and directed by Paul Scheer, as Trent tells a roundabout story of his great great great grandfather showing up to throw on sunglasses and say the CSI-esque pun in the Old West after the Time Angels save the day again. It’s a toss-off episode with some fun guest stars—new Angels Eliza Dushku, Jayma Mays, and Santigold(!) are onscreen more than the regulars—that nonetheless feels rushed and incomplete for a show that generally packs joke after intricate joke into its running time.
Not to steal my esteemed colleague Erik Adams’ thunder—he has many more observations on the potential of quarter-hour programming, plus inside information—but this week’s episode of NTSF again had me thinking about the possibilities that shows like Childrens Hospital and NTSF present for Adult Swim. The form lends itself toward constant experimentation because it’s just right between a long sketch and a sitcom episode. But where Childrens Hospital uses its alternate show NewsReaders to continue the mythology of the medical soap opera (popular enough to get its own spinoff), NTSF gets far more tangential, like the post-credits tag during Childrens Hospital Scheer wrote that initially launched the show.
As Robert David Sullivan astutely observed this week when discussing Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the past few generations of television have been bereft of definitive anthology shows. What “The Great Train Stoppery” got me thinking about was how NTSF could go further in this direction to land somewhere halfway between the short attention span humor of Robot Chicken and a comedy anthology show in quarter-hour installments. NTSF basically constitutes this structure each week many times during the season, fully committing to homages and genre-focused episodes that deviate from the initial procedural premise.
The only problem is that this particular episode isn’t a very funny proof-of-concept. I admire the commitment to experimentation, and it shows that perhaps a quarter hour show with a 13-episode order could tap into something new in television comedy. If given the opportunity to create an anthology-style show that draws a wide range of actors, writers, and directors under a stylistic umbrella, it could be a series of shorts—and I realize Drunk History kind of scratches this itch already, but it’s hilarious and could work on a quarter-hour model.
To be fair, tonight’s episode is most likely due to scheduling conflicts—I wouldn’t call it budget cuts since Dushku, Mays, and Santigold couldn’t have been that generous by essentially starring in an episode. But without much of the main cast—Martin Starr makes some hilarious deadpan observations in the frame story that earn laughs, but nothing as funny as the future Community cancellation joke from “Time Angels” last season. It's also possible this was some sort of backdoor pilot—though the casting doesn't line up for that to be true—but it would mark the first time that one of the quarter-hour shows fell flat from the get-go.
Jayma Mays is the funniest of the three new Angels, consistently misinterpreting the mission to find a missing golden railroad spike for Ulysses S. Grant (Matt Walsh) to complete the transcontinental railroad before a train derails. Santigold playing “the smart one” gets a little more humor, but Dushku doesn’t get much to do other than beat people up. I love how many guest stars Scheer has been able to land for this season, and a lot of time they’ve worked in genre parodies of James Bond or Con-Air. But those work because of the familiar characters that show up in each of the parody iterations—deflating my excitement for something closer to an anthology show. Episodes like “The Great Train Stoppery” make me hopeful that one day NTSF achieves what seems to be its goal at this point: adopting a different genre parody in each episode (and dropping the initial conceit entirely) and succeeding every time. But without the familiar characters helping to tie the comedy back to the people we care about, the degree of difficulty goes way up.