Television shows with darkly fantastic themes have been around forever. From The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone to Twin Peaks and X-Files, producers have scored with programming that subverts the more standard stasis of series’ plots and character portrayals. The death-and-divorce cycle of long-running dramatic shows becomes, if not predictable in specific detail, nevertheless expected; and most situation comedies are constructed in such a way that the comedy is dependent upon the characters’ fundamental unchangeable natures: Kramer is Kramer is Kramer, so to speak. So, the weirder series are fun variations, offering exciting challenges in their plot twists and via sheer loony inventiveness. Reference the Smog Monster of Lost, for one particularly silly and satisfying example. Recently, Stranger Things and Black Mirror have grabbed audiences: the former with a hip take on the horror movies of the 80s; the latter with slick and satirical social commentary about the impact of technology on humanity. Both are pretty good, in their different ways. However, neither is the best.
The best, grimmest, least predictable, most insane show of recent memory is Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories.
Those of you familiar with the previous work of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (Tom Goes to the Mayor, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, etc.) will be prepared, generally, for the duo’s brand of off-kilter, intense, absurdist humor. But the seven episodes of Bedtime Stories currently available on Hulu have a distinct identity, both in terms of production and dramatic/comedic impact. They’ve eschewed the low-budget, public-access style of presentation for a more typical professional appearance, and they have seriously ratcheted up the “what the fuck is happening here” quotient. I mean, seriously.
The first episode, titled “Hole,” starts as a riff on the familiar Suburban Neighbor Is Not What He Seems horror trope but, by refusing to offer the viewer the escape typical in that scheme, ends up as a bleak and harrowing tale worthy of Edgar Allen Poe. “Toes” (which stars the perfect Bob Odenkirk as a blandly terrifying surgeon) continues on in that tone, going even farther in its deadpan dysfunction. “Angel Boy” hearkens obliquely back to the classic Tim and Eric character Casey Tatum but introduces a wrinkle equal parts Faust and Goonies.
Not all of the stories are so overtly of the Weird Tales-type. Others are more immediately comedic in structure: “Bathroom Boys” (which also features frequent Tim & Eric collaborator Zach Galifianakis) is, in form, a parody of ’70s sitcoms. “Roomates” is character study of two Hollywood nitwits. A couple–notably “The Endorsement, with Jason Schwartzman, and “Baby,” with John C. Reilly–offer sci-fi-boosted seeming social commentary that would not be out of place on Black Mirror. But where that series and its forerunners are forward in their critiques to the point of being pedantic, Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories provides no clear moral POV. If there is any takeaway from these tales it’s that. . . .
Yeah, I got nothing. There is no takeaway. It’s not that kind of operation. Bedtime Stories is precise and dreamlike in its fine detail and amoral imagination. The strength of the writing and the acting yields rich and believable characters that might be termed Lynchian, presented as they are in outlandish circumstances. But where Lynch’s imagination is insular, almost hermetic, Tim and Eric are more worldly. To the extent each may be said to be dreamlike, Lynch invites you into his own; with these bedtime stories, Tim and Eric seem intent upon getting into yours and making an engrossing, disorienting, disturbing mess of things.
Night, night, baby.