Shotgunning three seasons of Workaholics, kegger-style, over this last week has set my mind inevitably trying to compare the show’s protagonist trio to others. With their anarchic undermining of the squares, the Marx Brothers come to mind, except that in Workaholics, you sort of root for society. Unlike with the Marxes, whose victims were usually stuck up, crooked, and generally deserving of the wanton destruction rained upon Margaret Dumont’s snooty garden parties, those who object to the antics of Blake, Anders, and Adam are more recognizably normal. Square? Maybe, but only to the extent that they don’t appreciate having three infantile, drunk, stoned, farting, pissing, ‘shrooming loose cannons deploying their latest flight of jackassery while he or she is, say, trying to dispiritedly oversee a workplace (or have a baby, run a business, principal a high school, etc).

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That being said, the Workaholics guys are easier to root for than, for example, the Gang from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in that Anders, Blake, and Adam’s inevitably destructive escapades result less from being the worst people in the world who do things for the most selfish reasons possible and more from—well, that’s where it gets confusing. While both shows maintain admirable commitment to their particular brands of outrageousness, Sunny benefits from the very specific conception of their five main characters as utterly reprehensible people—we watch the Gang’s choices play out as part of a thorough, most often hilarious dissection of how the worst five people in the world would act in any given scenario.

On Workaholics, the conception of the three protagonists is more muddled. The guys, as a group, are irresponsible and impulsive, resulting in their weekly schemes wreaking havoc on coworkers, innocent bystanders, and each other, but even after three seasons, exactly why these guys act the way they do isn’t especially clear—a fact which often makes their hijinks more forgettable. Anders, Blake, and Adam’s personalities are less distinct, and so their reactions to things take on a certain sameness, even randomness. Sure, Anders is nominally more responsible and sensible, Adam is “bro” culture taken to its most obnoxious extremes, and Blake is the Harpo-esque manchild, but they can usually be counted on to act in a remarkably similar way to any situation. At times, an episode will breeze by and all I’m left with is a vague memory of loud, gross wackiness—twenty minutes watching a cartoon cloud with random objects and rude noises poking out as it steamrolls by like the Tasmanian Devil.

Which isn’t a bad thing necessarily. When a script is particularly inspired in its escalating chaos, the results can be very funny indeed, verging on giddy brilliance. When, as in tonight’s episode however, the craziness seems forced, Workaholics can be the crude, needlessly crass series its commercials (which invariably pull out the grossest, catchphrase-iest bits) portray it as. (“Don’t dip your ink in company stink, my brother.”)

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As ever, tonight’s episode starts off with the guys being thwarted from doing something irresponsible, gross, or stupid. This time it’s all three as they seek to force a fish fry on their coworkers consisting of the decorative koi Blake has rescued (and then accidentally killed) from his favorite, condemned P.F. Chang’s. Boss Alice won’t let them cook inedible pet fish over dangerous hot oil in a work environment so the guys, seeing that Alice has been dumped by the hunky water delivery guy, decide that they need to hire a well-endowed man whore to put her in a better mood so she’ll assent to their fish fry idea. Of course. This succession of quicksilver, irrational intuitive leaps on the guys’ part is Workaholics’ stock-in-trade—guys want fish fry, Alice won’t allow fish fry, get Alice laid so they can have fish fry—and, as ever, it serves to illuminate their defining traits. They want something silly and irresponsible and that becomes the most important thing in a world they take not at all seriously. So far so good.

A couple of factors work against them this time out, however, one an enduring structural flaw and the other a miscalculation of just how much gross shit a 22 minute episode of TV can ladle on and still remain funny.

As to the first, I refer back to my contention that the guys, and their motivations, have never been made clear enough. (Far too often, the explanation, “They’re just fucked up all the time” seems all we’re left with.) When Blake is performing way-too-hard CPR on a dead fish (was it Koi Orbison?), causing its guts to squirt out, and then he tries to shove them back in, and then he screams at God for letting this happen, its unclear how much self-awareness there is in his reactions. And sure, it can be argued that Blake, being the manchild(-iest) of the group is more susceptible to flights of fancy, but certainly all three guys must know that their humorless boss is going to object to them trying to force a lunch of inedible, unsanitary fried fish on their coworkers. And yet all three then dedicate themselves to making their plan a reality. The same goes for their man whore plan, Blake’s choice of outfit for their chosen seducer (three huge arrows pointing to his crotch), and essentially every other element of their various plans. There’s an uneasy elasticity of self-awareness to the main characters which, again, I contend makes the show just the sum of its gags. It’s live by the sword situation, and when the gags aren’t as as well-constructed, that sword is going to end up somewhere uncomfortable.

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As to the second objection, handling scatology, much like actual scat, is a delicate business. Workaholics traffics in more than its share of bodily fluid (solid, gas) comedy, and when it works you’ve got to tip your cap. It’s not every show that can pull off a good shit joke (vomit joke, amniotic fluid in the face joke, piss joke, etc.), but Workaholics manages it more often than not—I maintain that the poop dollar gag is a classic. When it doesn’t work, it becomes a wallow, something epitomized by Anders and Adam’s rotten fish/explosive vomit fight at the end of the episode. It was a matter of Chekhov’s rotten fish that someone was going to end up covered in innards, I suppose, but the gross out-to-comedy ratio was just way off—and off-putting.

I don’t want to sound overly harsh on this episode. The heart of the show remains in the easy, bantering interplay among the guys, and the way they deconstruct Adam’s braggadocio is funny as ever. (Adam: “Size queens, they can smell my hog a mile away.” Anders: “You don’t want people to be able to smell your penis, Adam.” Blake: “Especially from miles away.”) And I always admire Maribeth Monroe’s hard-edged but beleaguered work as the exasperated Alice. (The fact that she plays drums in her garage gave me welcome Some Kind Of Wonderful/Mary Stuart Masterson flashbacks.) And her bar scene with Anders is as uncharacteristically human and almost sweet as her later disgusted mounting of him on her desk is humorously in character. I’d been told Workaholics is an acquired taste—I’m still acquiring.

Stray observations:

  • Apart from Koi Orbison, Blake’s fish friends include Rob Koiddry, Gilly Nelson, and Fish Diesel (or Fin Diesel).
  • The way Blake’s mind works—when Anders and Adam ask, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?,” Blake immediately leaps to, “Wait, are you guys gonna fuck these fish?”
  • Montez: “These are just decorative pond scum, livin’ off pennies and Tic-Tacs.” Blake: “No! They eat loogies and Big League Chew.”
  • Alice referring to her ex-boyfriend as a “fucking jug-jockey.”
  • “Alice sure has been a real ‘k’ word lately.” “I think you mean ‘c’ word.” “Alice has cancer?” “No, 'cunt'.” “Alice has cunt cancer?”
  • The guys, playing producer with their man whore candidates: “So you’ve had sex with a chick at Julliard…”
  • According to the math, Blake has had sex with between zero and one woman.
  • Alice could have done worse than sweet Girthquake (Kyle Bornheimer.) Poor Girthquake.
  • Thanks to Pilot for taking the season premiere. I’ll be your reviewer for the rest of the season and shall attempt to keep it as tight butthole as possible.

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