The cast of MADtv (photo: Tommy Garcia / The CW)

When we think of MADtv, we tend to think of the great talents who came from the show rather than the program itself. Patton Oswalt was a writer the first two seasons! Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele were cast members! As for the show itself… eh. This isn’t to say it was horrible; there were certainly some memorable recurring characters (who didn’t love Michael McDonald’s Stuart?), but while it desperately wanted to be an edgier Saturday Night Live, MADtv often relied on excessively broad comedy and overdone stereotypes. When Fox canceled the show in 2009, it wasn’t exactly major news; seven years later, it’s been revived by The CW, though it’s not like anyone’s been clamoring for its return.

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The CW reboot features an entirely new cast, with alumni (billed as “MADtv all-stars”) bridging the gap between the two editions of the show—and giving the audience something familiar to cling to. Throughout the premiere, Will Sasso reprises his impressions of Bill Clinton and Kenny Rogers, while Nicole Sullivan plays Hillary Clinton in two different sketches. The veterans bring their A-game, and the new kids are more than able, but in its first episode, the new MADtv never seems to get off the ground.

Early in the show, there’s the inevitable take on the 2016 presidential election, as the Clintons join Donald and Melania Trump on a version of The Newlywed Game that Wolf Blitzer (Adam Ray) is less than thrilled to host. If you’ve paid even the slightest bit of attention to these people, you can already guess what every joke will be. Bill cheated on Hillary. Hillary is stilted. Donald Trump is a sleazeball. Melania is a trophy wife and probably isn’t very smart. (That last cliché proves particularly irritating, because it’s provably false.) The sketch gives no insight whatsoever into the election and just relies on cheap jokes based on already established public perceptions. There’s a bright spot in Piotr Michael’s Trump impression, which is dead-on and hilarious. Admittedly, Trump isn’t the hardest person to mimic, but Michael’s take is remarkably spot-on. It deserves better material.

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Piotr Michael as Steve Buscemi and Lyric Lewis as Nicki Minaj (Photo: Scott Everett White / The CW)

Following that, there’s a sketch about a Cinderella reboot that stars Nicki Minaj (Lyric Lewis). It has a few good laughs, but there’s not much to it other than a bunch of decent celebrity impressions. The sketch appears to want to comment on the recent trend of rebooting popular franchises with women or people of color in leading roles where they were none before, but it says nothing pro or con about that phenomenon, and just relies on “Hey, y’know how that one celebrity has these certain mannerisms? Well, here’s that!” Along with Jeremy D. Howard’s rendition of Tracy Morgan, Michael is once again a mitigating factor, as he plays a suitably creepy Steve Buscemi.

What hurts the premiere the most is its tendency to touch on pop culture in ways that aren’t the least bit original. A Game Of Thrones parody focuses on the fact that Daenerys Targaryen goes by multiple names and titles, and that sometimes people get the characters and settings mixed up, an observation that’s been made umpteen times since the show’s debut. Elsewhere, a Dora The Explorer spoof—in 2016!—has the character traveling through various neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Once again, you can see every single joke coming: Beverly Hills has rich white people! East L.A. is predominantly Hispanic! Skid Row has drug addicts! Michelle Ortiz’s commitment to the performance is admirable, but despite her best efforts, the sketch is too obvious and too bland to be funny.

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Tellingly, the best sketch of the premiere features no TV parodies or celebrity impressions. It centers on a man and a woman whose dinner date is interrupted by the women’s lounge-singing ex-boyfriend, whose act is comprised of extremely specific songs about his former lover. Unlike every other sketch in the episode, this one actually has some unpredictability; there were two times when I thought I had the sketch’s premise figured out, but was thrown a curveball. It’s a rare moment when the writers seem to be focused on organic comedy rather than generic comments about pop-culture touchstones, and hopefully they do more of that in subsequent episodes.

After its first episode, the new MADtv can’t help but seem like an off-brand version of the original, which was an off-brand SNL to begin with. The sketches repeatedly rely on obvious jokes, and the general vibe just seems low-rent, even when compared to its Fox predecessor. A talented cast is the one thing the show has going for it, and they demonstrate a lot of passion and commitment in the first episode. Michael and Ortiz seem poised for breakout stardom—unfortunately, that probably won’t happen if they don’t start getting some stronger material to work with.

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Stray observations

  • The night ends with a sketch from the MADtv vaults (this was a hallmark of the original show, too), starring Key and Peele before they were Key & Peele. Here, they star as Shakespearean actors who freak out when the play’s director continually does things that are considered bad luck in the theater community, like saying ”good luck,” or mentioning Macbeth by name. The energy and humor they bring to this sketch is staggering, and in retrospect, it seems obvious that they would go onto great things independent of the show. Frankly, showing it here was probably a mistake, because it’s much more powerful than most of the comedy on display in this episode, and it acts as a stark reminder of how much this work this reboot has to do.