There’s a rule I learned when I used to take improv classes in Chicago: If something odd happens in a show, whether it’s the flubbing of a line or a complete nonsequitor, it’s not perceived as a mistake if it happens more than once. Basically, patterns are deeply ingrained into the fabric of comedy, and even simple repetition can provide some laughs. The Heart, She Holler, which wrapped its six-part miniseries run tonight, is essentially a whole bunch of pattern games with a loose story to keep things semi-grounded. And its comedic unevenness can be chalked up to the simple point of whether or not PFFR decided to introduce weirdness for the sake of weirdness, or tie that weirdness to something tangible and funny. Both happen a bunch, a sort of assault on the senses, and thus the series went from hysterical and sharp to incomprehensible and unsettling (think American Horror Story) in a matter of seconds.
First, the good stuff: The Heart, She Holler established its own brand of weirdness right away, a smart move given how completely out-there the premise is. Recall that the leader of the Heartshe Holler passed away, giving the entire domain to his long lost son, whom he’d hidden away behind a wall and to whom he’d provided nothing for years. Hurlan has been literally sheltered his entire life and seems to have a severe learning disability to boot (on account of all the in-breeding no doubt), thus he’s unsuitable to do anything other than hang out with his little clay pal JoJo and lament the life with his pappy he’ll never have. Meanwhile, the other two Heartshe children, Hershey and Ambrosia, plot their power grab, using most of the town’s citizens—the cop, the doctor, a few others who pop up—as their pawns.
Once the characters were established, the series kind of derailed. There were still plots against Hurlan, and sometimes the sisters had it in for one another, but it essentially just became about finding ways to insert uncomfortable things I don’t think any of us had ever seen on TV before. And that’s not a bad thing—some of the funniest moments happened there in the middle. For example, at one point, Ambrosia stops the Heartshe factory from running, and Jon Glaser’s hands are chopped off by a machine. Later, Glaser is at the bar, having replaced his hands with beer cans, telling everyone about how he still had that phantom hand feeling that made it seem like he was caressing a woman; at the same time, Ambrosia is visited by the ghost of just the hands, which start feeling her up. Her husband the cop returns to find the two of them in bed together, and he shoots the hands , which causes blood to fly all over bar patrons standing next to Glaser, and the hands re-die and turn into zombie hands. There are so many weird things that happen in that sequence, but the series only asks that we buy the simple fact that hands alone can haunt someone. Everything else after that follows somewhat “logically,” if you can call it that. It’s one of the strongest scenes in the entire run.
There are a lot of simple pattern games played, too. At one point the neighborhood creepy guy steals JoJo for his own, and when JoJo doesn’t talk to him, he cuts JoJo open to see what the problem is. He starts pulling out intestines, which goes on for a long, long, long time. Later, when Hurlan is trying to kill his mom by pulling the plug—there’s a whole story about how the mom’s inability to die is the town’s real secret—and he’s met with miles-upon-miles of intestines. Nice callback, and the two moments are better for it. Other times there’s just what seems like isolated weirdness, like when Ambrosia surrounds herself with chicken dinners but then it turns out the priest has surrounded himself with hats he’s earned through conversions. Nothing is isolated if it happens a few times.
But The Heart, She Holler ultimately suffers because there’s just too much happening, and a lot of it is really uncomfortable to watch just for the sake of being uncomfortable. At one point Hershey becomes pregnant with Hurlan’s baby for 10 years (just go with it) while Ambrosia becomes pregnant too, only with a head-baby who talks to her during the ultrasound. It only serves to further Ambrosia’s craziness, which is pretty well established at this point. Or, near the end—which is completely unsatisfying—a stranger comes to town, played by Kurt Braunohler, and he has run-ins with everyone in the town, as if we needed a reminder of who these people are. There are a lot of interesting ideas that could have been explored had The Heart, She Holler really rolled up its sleeves, but it feels at times like it’s content with disjointed jokes more often than I’d have expected for a six-part miniseries.
At the end of the day though, I’m not sure the folks at PFFR would have had it any other way. I mean, at one point Kristen Schaal pees through Kurt Braunohler’s legs. There’s little anyone’s going to say to make you like that or not like that once you’ve already made up your mind. I think there are a lot of risks being taken with The Heart, She Holler, and I can appreciate that even if it feels like a lot of them didn’t pay off with big laughs. As I mentioned in my first review, this is an aesthetic more than anything else, and when PFFR gets the pattern right, it’s an aesthetic that can be exploited well.