"Stella" is what you might call a post-modern surrealist sitcom. It features three men who always wear suits and whose character names are the same as the actors'. They do the sort of things sitcom characters do -- go on camping trips, hang out at coffeehouses, go cruising for chicks -- but they do them oddly, randomly, with dialogue full of non-sequiturs and plot twists that are just this side of bizarre.
I think it's one of the funniest shows I've ever seen. I know others who hate it. I suspect even the men who make the show would agree that it's not for everyone. Their style of humor -- smart guys pretending to be dumb guys pretending to be smart guys -- is self-referential and twisted. Either it works for you or it doesn't.
Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain began Stella as a performing group several years back and turned it into a Comedy Central series in the summer of 2005. The premise is simply that these three guys live together in an apartment. They are friends and occasionally rivals. Their personalities are not clearly delineated; the nature of the series is that whatever is funny, that's what they do. There is no character development, no learning, no growing. "Stella" exists in its own little version of made-up reality.
One of the brilliant things about the series, in fact, is its level of creative integrity. Every moment of every episode is fraught with strange, goofy behavior, with no attempt whatsoever to simplify it, explain it or water it down. I greatly admire that kind of dedication to one's ideas, and any comedian will tell you that commitment is key to being funny.
This exchange of dialogue is typical. The three guys have just been insulted by the women who live downstairs, who mockingly suggested that Black run for president of the tenants' board.
WAIN: They think they're so funny!
BLACK: So funny I forgot to laugh!
SHOWALTER: I remembered to laugh, but I didn't, because it specifically wasn't funny.
WAIN: Yeah, like the Great Irish Potato Famine.
SHOWALTER: When [the women] said that, it literally WAS the Great Irish Potato Famine.
BLACK: That was such a great famine.
SHOWALTER: I love that famine.
Then they go off on a tangent about how tragedy is, by definition, sad, and how war is sad too, and how that's what the '60s were all about. Then it comes around to this:
SHOWALTER: It's like when Bob Dylan said, "I have a dream," that's what he was talking about!
WAIN: What about Madonna? I mean, is she like a virgin, or is she the material girl? I mean, this girl's had more re-inventions than Thomas Edison.
BLACK: I know! She's had more boyfriends than Madonna!
SHOWALTER: I like English muffins.
WAIN: Let's go to that board meeting.
In that scene you find a couple of actual sitcom-style gags -- confusing Bob Dylan with Martin Luther King, for example -- but mostly the humor comes from the whiplashing randomness, which is decidedly not traditional TV fare. Then there's the Thomas Edison line, which reads like a lame sitcom joke, which is why Wain delivers it mockingly, to suggest he's parodying lame sitcoms. Note that Black's follow-up line -- "She's had more boyfriends than Madonna" -- bears the same structure as Wain's lame joke but doesn't make any sense, thus furthering the parody.
Later in the same episode, Showalter has a conversation with Wain in which he slips into a Canadian accent for one line and Irish for another. It is apropos of nothing and garners no reaction from Wain. This is typical of "Stella's" style: They don't underline the funny parts. They just throw 'em out there, and you laugh or you don't.
So far, Comedy Central has not officially canceled the series but hasn't ordered a second season of it, either. For all intents and purposes, it's gone. These 10 episodes -- each one hysterically funny; I don't count a single dud among them -- will probably be the only ones we get. Oh well. I can watch them over and over again and still giggle every time.
All 10 episodes are included on two discs, five episodes per disc. Each disc is in a thin Digipak-style case, and the two cases are housed in a standard cardboard slipcover.
There are no subtitles or alternate language tracks.
VIDEO: As you'd expect from a brand-new TV series, the picture is clean and bright, with no noticeable blemishes.
AUDIO: Dolby Digital Stereo. Clear, crisp, perfectly acceptable.
In "The History of Stella" (41:58), the three guys sit around comfortably and alternate between discussing how Stella came to be and riffing on each other. It is always enjoyable to watch comedians enjoy one another's company, and they manage to tell Stella's real story, too. They met as NYU students, did comedy there, and later worked together as 3/11 of the sketch troupe The State (which later had an MTV series). Other State cast members included people who went on to do "Reno 911," while Black, Showalter and Wain came to be a three-man troupe called Stella.
They do an entertaining and informative job explaining the origins of Stella --including the group's name and the reason they all wear suits -- and the doc also includes clips of their early stage work, material from MTV's "The State" series, portions of Stella's pre-TV short films, and various other amusing snippets.
(I do wish the doc had some chapter breaks in it, since it's 42 minutes long.)
"Comedy Central Quickies" is simply two-minute clips from episodes of "South Park," "Reno 911" and "The Colbert Report." There's no reason for this, though it's cool that the "Colbert Report" clip is the now-legendary segment where he first introduces the word "truthiness."
Unlike most TV shows and movies, "Stella's" deleted scenes (13:52 total) are as enjoyable as the stuff they left in. One assumes they were deleted only for time. It's fun stuff.
The bloopers (13:25) are of the usual laughing-at-ourselves, flubbing-our-lines variety.
And three Easter Eggs (sort of)! On the "Special Features" menu, if you move the cursor to any of the three guys' heads and select it, you'll get somethin' special. There's a Stella short film ("Bar," from 2002); a minute or so of the guys being excited about Friday night; and a collection of Comedy Central promos.
All 10 episodes have commentaries by all three guys, and they're just fantastic. Much like the "History of Stella" featurette, the commentaries are a mix of genuine information and tangential goofiness. David Wain is the one who keeps them on topic, Showalter points out the things he thinks are funny and explains references where necessary, and Black adds spice. If you find the show entertaining, you're bound to love the commentaries, too, which have the same dynamic. Absolutely delightful.
NOTE: While the episodes themselves are PG, the commentaries and other extras are decidedly R-rated.
This is a unique and brilliantly funny series, and the DVD treatment is outstanding. Commentaries on every episode, a highly informative making-of featurette, deleted scenes, bloopers -- what more could you want?