The last time I saw Bret and Jemaine, my heart went out to the lads from New Zealand. Not the desired response for a musical-comedy act, I believe.
And it happened almost exactly one year ago, when the pop-song parodists known as Flight of the Conchords played a sold-out show at Massey Hall in Toronto and I was pressed into service to review the show.
Clearly, I saw, the Conchords had a following. Fans of the duo's self-titled HBO series turned out in force - the vendors hawking T-shirts and other Conchords merchandise were doing brisk business - and the crowd shrieked en masse when they shimmed out in silver spacemen suits for their opening number, Too Many Dicks (on the Dance Floor). Unplugged renditions of viral-video favourites You're the Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room) and Business Time drew similarly enthusiastic responses.
But everything changed midway. When the duo dared veer into non-TV material, you could feel the energy leave the packed room like air escaping a soufflé. The Conchords were a dish best served on the small screen; without the visuals, they were merely two witty boyos with guitars. I wasn't the only one pressing an imaginary fast-forward button.
Which possibly explains the lessened reliance on song parodies in the second campaign of Flight of the Conchords (Comedy Network, 10 p.m.) The sophomore season has already aired on HBO, and HBO Canada and will now reach a broader audience on basic cable. It's probably become a better show, though diehard Conchords devotees might not be amused.
As before, the premise casts Bret and Jemaine as themselves: two nerdy New Zealanders in New York trying to break into the music business. Once again, their fan base has a single member, named Mel (Kristen Schaal), and their only friend is an indifferent New Yorker, named Dave (Arj Barker).
The deadpan humour of FOTC remains the same, but it's obvious changes were made off-camera, possibly at HBO's behest. In the show's first abbreviated 12-episode season, the highlight of each show was the music-video takeoff, most of which were very clever. The inspired Bowie's in Space sounded exactly like an early version of the Thin White Duke, except funnier.
But as musical artists are supposed to come of age with their second album, TV stars adapt for their sequel season. The change becomes apparent in the opening episode, wherein Bret and Jemaine are determined to kick-start their stalled careers. Hey, it worked for two seasons of The Monkees.
The tonal shift improves the concept here, too, mostly because Bret and Jemaine are endearing chaps, but you keep waiting for the requisite song parody. When it finally happens late in the episode, in the pair's ad jingle for a women's product called Femident ("You're a woman, you wear women's wear/You have breasts and longish hair"), the effect is not what it was before. It's clever - just not Conchords clever.
Take your cue from the fact that the first show's musical highlight comes from their inept manager Murray, splendidly played by Rhys Murray. When dismissed of his managerial duties, Murray takes to a Manhattan rooftop to belt out the operatic number Rejected, replete with symphonic backing from Bret and Jemaine.
That seems to be the tack for the second season of Flight of the Conchords, which airlifts several celebrity guests - another sure sign the show has changed. Upcoming episodes will feature 24's Mary-Lyn Rajskub, Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig and fellow Kiwi star Lucy Lawless - Xena the Warrior Princess herself - in carefully conceived guest turns.
None of which likely deter fans from enjoying this season, but once it's done, we may never see their kind again, at least not on television. By mutual consent, the comedy minstrels and HBO have decided against shooting a third season of the series. Love them while you can, because these Conchords have been grounded.
Check local listings.
John Doyle returns on Thursday.
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