Anders Holm, Blake Anderson, Adam DeVine (Comedy Central)

“Speedo Racer” exemplifies a lot of what’s wrong with Workaholics while simultaneously being mostly delightful. Which is to say, it’s one of the best episodes of Workaholics I’ve ever seen and an illustration of why Workaholics is not a great TV show. I feel like I could type variations of this sentence for the rest of this review, so I’ll move on.

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There’s no foundation to this show. It’s usually funny, sometimes forgettable—a slobby, loose hangout of a series where the three stars/protagonists count on their chemistry and affinity for juvenile “bro” humor to please their fan base. That’s hardly a criticism—there are plenty of sitcoms centered on male arrested development that are absolutely insufferable. (Including the late, unlamented starring vehicle for one of tonight’s guest stars.) Indeed, there are times when Workaholics makes the concept of a trio of irresponsible, sex-and-weed-obsessed layabouts positively hilarious. But, even in its best episodes, the show has a definite “anything goes” comic sensibility that’s less inspired anarchy than “whatever seemed like a good idea that week.” No one’s expecting anyone to grow and change on Workaholics, but its lack of commitment to anything resembling a comic philosophy renders the show more disposable that it need be.

Take tonight’s episode, where Ders agrees to take part in a charity swim meet at his old high school. Written by Anders Holm himself, “Speedo Racer” provides Ders with the most affecting character beats he’s ever had on the show, as his need to redeem his reputation—sullied when swim team captain Torpey (Blue Mountain State’s Alan Ricthson) claimed that Ders got a boner in the swim team shower—plumbs the depths of Ders’ adolescent humiliations and their lingering effects in his adult life to a surprisingly profound degree. Indeed, this is some of the best acting Holm has ever done, especially when Ders realizes the extent to which his high school rival has bested him in literally every way possible. (The insanely buff Torpey is not only rich, pals with Olympic swimmer/doofus Ryan Lochte, and father to two identical, towheaded swimming prodigies named Calen and Declan, but he’s also married to Ders’ high school dream girl, who still looks great—even if she won’t let Torpey do butt stuff.) The gradual crushing of Ders in the episode is almost hard to watch, which, as well-performed as it is by Anders Holm, is part of the problem.

The three main characters on this show are whatever they need to be in service of whatever the week’s plot is. Not to hammer home the comparison, but It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia mines similar darkly comic situations—but there are surer hands at the tiller, and the comedy is richer for it. To put it another way, the terrible people on Sunny know who they are and the plots emerge from the characters. On Workaholics, the characters are made to fit the plot.

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So tonight, when Ders undergoes his truly upsetting series of trials, it’s tempting to say that viewer empathy flies in the face of how Ders is usually presented—except there’s no underlying logic to how Ders (or Blake, or Adam) are presented, except how each week’s episode dictates. Ders, with his car ownership, pretensions of elected office, and swim team looks, is often used as a comic foil to Adam and Blake’s more lowbrow pursuits and destructive irresponsibility—except when he’s not. (And when he is, look for poor Ders to have something really gross and awful happen to him.) Here, Ders’ vulnerability is so pronounced it throws the episode off-kilter, even as it’s genuinely moving.

Unlike his two pals, Ders’ athletic background and presumed one-time popularity makes it seem like he’s got options other than slumming it (at TelAmeriCorp, with the guys), but the show has gradually revealed that being Ders involves a lot of buried pain and rejection. So when he’s genuinely moved that Blake and Adam want to come to watch him swim (they just want to hit on the hot chicks they’ve been beating off to in Ders’ yearbook), when he sees his dream girl married to his nemesis, when he, humiliated again by Torpey’s devious, Viagra-caused boner in front of everyone, pounds every drop of alcohol the guys have brought and prepares to tear down the championship banner Torpey’s undermining once cost him, it’s all too much. (Holm’s drunken reading of the line “I can just put my name on it right? I’ll just pull it down, cross of Torpey’s name…and make everything all right” is deeply sad.)

The opening shot of the episode is also one of the most strikingly shot Workaholics sequences I’ve ever seen, with episode director (and Workaholics co-creator) Kyle Newacheck (who’s also done interesting work on Happy Endings, Community, and Parks And Recreation) jumping into the cold open with Blake and Adam dragging the bloodied and dazed Ders between them. Picking up after Ders has successfully taken down the banner (and less successfully impaled himself on a waiting swimming trophy), the scene cuts to black intermittently as Blake screams for a doctor (and then repeats the plea, Blake Anderson giving the second order an air of genuinely terrified hopelessness). Adam, being Adam, injects some nonsense, saying “Oh, dude, this would suck if you died!,” but he, too looks afraid as a beautifully composed shot captures thick drops of Ders’ blood as it diffuses in the wet concrete at their feet. When the opening credits start immediately afterward, it’s oddly powerful. The guys’ bond throughout is as strongly conveyed (and kind of sweet) as it’s ever been, beginning and ending with them putting out food in the hope of attracting some neighborhood squirrels for their entertainment. From start to finish, “Speedo Racer” finds the sweet spot where the guys’ codependent friendship seems like a good thing, even if they do some stupid-ass shit because of it.

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All of this sounds like I’m criticizing this episode for being good, I get that. But it’s good in isolation. A show can rewrite itself every week if that’s its mission statement, but, as funny as it can be, Workaholics is just messy.

Stray observations:

  • “Jocks? They peak in high school, but nerds become Skrillex.”
  • Blake reluctantly reveals that he hung out with the lunch ladies. “They were lunch friends to me.”
  • Anders Holm is really great in this episode. After Blake and Adam talk about being either a jock or a nerd: “I wasn’t part of either group. You sit in the corner, you watch them…you learn how to laugh on cue.”
  • “It’s fine, he’s just handsome and rich and banging Magda ‘the Lady Rock’ Johnson.”
  • Adam, after Ders threatens to jump off the balcony to get the banner: “If you do that, you’d destroy yourself…and that’d be pretty awesome to watch. I vote yes.”
  • There’s a B-story about Blake and Adam hitting on the now-adult woman they’ve been masturbating to in Ders’ yearbook while they debate her ethnicity. The Workaholics tradition of excusing the guys’ offensiveness through their obliviousness is the strategy for comedy here, an always-iffy proposition at least aided here by the woman (Chyna Lane) finding them resolutely repellant. (Of course, they do trick her into giving them mouth-to-mouth, which is supposed to be somewhat triumphant for the two little idiots.)
  • Adam on race: “And half black equals full black. That’s not my rule, that’s society’s rule, that’s why Drake can say the ‘n’ word a million times.”
  • While Torpey’s a quintessential douche, he’s also from a world where the guys’ dangerous nonsense is seen for what it is. Reluctantly accepting the impaled and shocky Ders’ challenge to a climactic swim race: “I think you should definitely not race and go immediately to the hospital.”
  • The image of the unconscious, nearly drowned Ders being hauled out of the pool by his nemesis while sporting an enormous, unwanted boner and with the swim team trophy he never won thrust through his side emerges as one of the most eloquently horrifying encapsulations of Ders’ (or anyone’s) ultimate humiliation in recent memory.

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