The most obvious precursor to the horror-comedy anthology Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories isn’t any of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s previous efforts for Adult Swim. Tom Goes To The Mayor, Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, and Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule all indulge in grotesquerie and gore—the second season of Check It Out! in particular plays like a psychological-horror film presented in 11-minute chunks of found footage.
But to fully prepare for the narrative mindfucks, gross-out effects, and HD crispness of Bedtime Stories, the proper rancid-milk aperitif is the video Wareheim directed for HEALTH’s “We Are Water.” (NSFW, assuming your workplace frowns upon excessive groin bleeding, partially nude maniacs wielding machetes, and stories of I Spit On Your Grave-style revenge.) Like that condensed slasher flick, Bedtime Stories finds Tim and Eric boiling down traditional creepshow beats into concentrated doses of “WTF.”
After debuting in a zanier form as a 2013 Halloween special, the first two proper episodes of Bedtime Stories are much closer to a version of Tales From The Crypt via Jefferton. The format is ideal for a duo so well-versed in short-form video: An anthology doesn’t lock Heidecker and Wareheim into telling any one story with any one set of characters, allowing them to call upon the services of like-minded comedians and past collaborators such as Bob Odenkirk and Gillian Jacobs. (And people from outside their immediate circle: Veteran character actor M. Emmet Walsh makes an eerie impression in episode two, “Toes.”) They’ve done work that’s more overtly funny, but humor isn’t the primary concern here. Bedtime Stories mixes uncomfortable laughs with heavy helpings of suspense, sometimes swapping the mechanisms of one for the other: The premiere, “Hole,” gets off to an unsettling start with a lengthy joke that’s little more than Heidecker rattling off a list of foodstuffs.
Both episodes are head scratchers, but “Toes” comes off as a better articulation of the Bedtime Stories concept, casting Odenkirk as a physician and father with a well-known specialty that would be a dark secret on any other anthology series. (It’s the dark secret that stems from that dark not-so-secret that leads to his undoing.) With less than a quarter-hour to work with, Heidecker and Wareheim (co-writing as well as co-directing) get to shave off all of thumb-twiddling middle acts of the anthology format; Bedtime Stories rockets from exposition to escalating tension to stomach-churning twists. The ride’s almost a little too short in “Hole,” though that’s an unfortunate side effect of the hysterical musical montage the inserts itself into a sinister “guy’s night” held by Heidecker’s mustachioed alpha male, Brenner.
Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories is an experiment in form, neither straight-ahead parody or strict satire. (Suffice it to say, “Toes” has no damning fingers to jab at the medical establishment.). It can hit (Odenkirk, the best curser in the biz, swearing his way through a procedure) and miss (the ending of “Hole” is a bit soft) in equal measure. Either way, it’s exciting to watch Heidecker and Wareheim stretch their legs like this, confining themselves to a single genre—horror—while trying out all of the various tropes, styles, and filmmaking techniques that genre affords.
The pilot was a classic “Earn your inheritance by staying in a haunted house” story; “Hole” contains echoes of David Lynch (one signature Lynch shot in particular); and “Toes” is a body horror/torture porn hybrid. Yet Tim and Eric’s unique comic voice is enough to keep everything relatively uniform: bad fashions, worse hair, intentionally stilted line readings, takes that linger two seconds too long, and an intense attention to the tchotchkes and hobbies everyday people substitute for personalities. When he’s not intimidating the nebbish neighbor he insists on calling “Murph,” Brenner’s life revolves around a tacky “man cave” and a pro football team called the Fish; Odenkirk’s “Toes” doctor, meanwhile, has a thing for sailing.
Caught up in the deluge of all it’s trying to do—frighten, amuse, enrapture, disgust—it might seem that Tim And Eric’s Bedtime Stories is also a vacuum masked by a bunch of gaudy baubles. But Heidecker and Wareheim’s comedy has always been more about assault than intellectualization, and Bedtime Stories just gives them a sharper stick. (Or machete.) The tales mimicked by Bedtime Stories trained viewers to look for monsters behind every friendly face; the series’ ultimate twist is that even the monster’s face hides something darker, deeper, and weirder.