In a relatively quick period of time, the HBO comedy series Flight of the Conchords has established a devoted fan following, and I've got to admit, for a long time I didn't know why. Honestly, two bland guys from New Zealand come to America with the hopes of becoming stars? Sounds similar to what Tenacious D did years ago in its own short-lived show on HBO. I have now just finished watching the second season of Conchords without having seen the first, and I'm firing up the car now to grab a copy of Season One. I think it's that good.
For those unfamiliar with the show's concept, Jemaine Clement (who sports slightly fashionable glasses and whose lips immediately make him a double for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler) and Bret McKenzie (who has a helmet of curly hair, a beard and a propensity for wearing sweatshirts with animals on the front) are New Zealand's "Fourth Most Popular Folk Parody Duo." They come to New York and eventually meet up with Murray (Rhys Darby, Yes Man), who serves both as their manager and as a cultural attaché for the New Zealand embassy. As their manager, Murray is hopeless. What few gigs he gets the band, very few, if any, people show up. They can certainly count on Mel (Kristen Schaal), a married woman who could be considered a stalker if she was smarter or the band was popular. Their friend Dave (Arj Barker) works at a pawn shop and is the closest thing to an insider's perspective on American culture that the boys have, even if he does live with his parents. This relatively small group of actors serve as the center of the Conchords world, even if their world seems a little boring. That's not to say that things don't happen on the show; they do with regularity. In fact, here's the quick and dirty on each of the show's 10 episodes from Season Two (split over two discs):
"A Good Opportunity" - Murray's side project (backing another band) becomes a problem so Jemaine and Bret decide to fire him, but then hire him back as he's gotten them a job writing a commercial jingle for toothpaste.
"The New Cup" - Bret buys a teacup and the result leaves the Conchords bankrupt and Jemaine selling himself for sex in a cute spoof of Midnight Cowboy.
"The Tough Brets" - Bret slams some rappers in a song and decides to hire a posse to help protect him. And yes, Seymour Cassel (Rushmore) is part of the gang.
"Murray Takes It To The Next Level" - Murray thinks he should become a friend to Jemaine and Bret, rather than their manager, and introduces them to his friends, namely Jim (Jim Gaffigan).
"Unnatural Love" -Bret is horrified when Jemaine hooks up with (and starts seeing) a girl from Australia in an episode directed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
"Love is a Weapon of Choice" - Jemaine and Bret fight for the affections of Barbara/Brahbrah (Kristen Wiig, Adventureland), even going so far as to record a charity song for dogs who suffer epileptic seizures.
"Prime Minister" - Murray deals with the arrival of the New Zealand Prime Minister, while Bret and Jemaine get a gig as a Simon and Garfunkel tribute band in a cavalcade of hilarious and awesome guest stars.
"NewZealandTown" - A near-unrecognizable Lucy Lawless guests as an assistant to the Prime Minister as he creates and unveils a new tourist attraction in New York while Jemaine and Bret become addicted to hair gel and "being cool."
"Wingmen" - Bret takes a liking to a girl who works at a pet shop but can't bring himself to talk to her, and enlists Jemaine and Dave for help.
"Evicted" - Jemaine and Dave are thrown out of their apartment, and are persuaded by Murray to do an off-Broadway show based on their lives. They leave themselves with a perfect out if they decide not to come back to the show, so I guess the next question is: will they?
In between their comedic trials and tribulations, the Conchords manage to typically include one or two songs during each episode. The musical genres vary widely, but the tunes seem to convey a character's frame of mind in one way or another. From current R&B to grandiose '80s rock to techno, Jemaine and Bret cover it all admirably, and the lyrics are fan-fraking-tastic. In one song, my wife laughed at Jemaine's use of the term "familiars." Go look it up and marvel how someone can use that in a humorous song. The Conchords have won a Grammy for their work for good reason.
From a comedic perspective, I'll have to admit that some things in Season Two required a couple of episodes for me to really catch onto and appreciate. I didn't think some of the jokes hit because in part, I thought their deadpan nature almost felt a little "too cool for the room." I chalk it up to not being completely familiar with their delivery and presentation because by the time I got to "Unnatural Love," I was fully invested, laughing at every turn. Every time they share the screen with Murray, I find myself giggling. Darby is in my mind, doing a slightly different version of Stephen Merchant's Darren in another defunct HBO show (Extras). Darren is far more absent-minded than Murray, but both are just as incompetent, yet equally hilarious.
Darby is good, but it's clear that the multi-faceted performances of Bret and Jemaine are the reason that people tune in. They provide laughs both in their daily lives on the show and in their musical numbers. Some of the stories feel implausible and hard to believe, but by the end, you find yourself going along with them and laughing harder than you would expect to for two guys who appear fairly drab. I like the Conchords, and as a new fan, would love to have them back on HBO again post haste.
The episodes are displayed in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen and look excellent, almost on the level of a high-definition broadcast. The print is as pristine as it's going to look (they better; Season Two only finished airing less than five months before the DVD was released), and skin tones are replicated pretty accurately, though Jemaine's lips look a little on the hot pink side of things. Did I just write that? Anyway, detail is clear and much more impressive than I was expecting, and it's a commendable video presentation.
The thing that surprises me is the heightened level of activity from this Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. From the opening musical intro, the episodes sound great through every speaker. There is speaker panning and directional activity all over the place, and listening to the musical segues from scene to scene is a joy in how they go from front to back channels (and back again), or side to side. There's even subwoofer activity on a few of the songs too. Dialogue is occasionally weak at times, and you may need to enable the subtitle option to listen to the boys, but this is damn fine audio work.
Pretty much standard fare by HBO comedy show standards. The "On Air Documentary Feature" (25:01) follows Jemaine and Bret as they do radio publicity for the show, but they also talk about how it all came together (Producers James Bobin and Paul Simms discuss the show's points from a conception standpoint as well). The boys (and Bobin) mention the difficulties of writing the episodes themselves, and the demands of the production schedule are shown. The supporting cast is interviewed and shares their thoughts on the show. It's a different "making-of" then I'm used to seeing, but it's nice. From there, a veritable treasure trove of deleted scenes (17, 25:04) awaits, many of which could have been easily added back into each of the episodes from which they were cut. "Dave's Pawn Shop Commercials" (3, 3:05) have Dave looking rather gangster-ish while showing off the great pawn shop, and Murray and Greg's consulate meetings (3:34) are included for additional jocularity. The outtake reel (7:05) focuses on Jemaine's laugh, which is admittedly hilarious. However, the fact that there was no significant contribution from the cast is disappointing. At least Mr. Show recorded cast commentaries for each episode.
Flight of the Conchords soars on DVD. The jokes are hits and technically, the two-disc set is better than anticipated. While the supplements are a little light, the material on Season Two is great stuff. Coming from a novice like me, take this recommendation to heart: I eagerly (and heartily) vouch for the show to any new fans. Those well-versed in the show will enjoy the bonus material enough to pick it up as well.