We’ve been waiting nearly a year to be addressed again as a “nation” by Stephen Colbert, so his return to television would’ve been news regardless. But in the last few days before the new fall season comes flooding in, there’s a lot happening: entertaining one-off specials, a fun crop of streaming shows, a farewell to an all-time great sketch comedy series, and a too-long-delayed breakthrough in sports broadcasting. Our weekly round-up of TV’s best covers all of that, plus the return of a cult favorite sitcom that’s as winning as it is crass.
5. You’re the Worst returns (FXX)
The first season of this crass, cringe-comic sitcom started out shaky, only to pull a 180-degree turn once creator Stephen Falk started balancing the romantic angst and mutual misbehavior of the show’s resident misanthropes. You didn’t just get the misadventures of asshole novelist Jimmy (Chris Geere) and hedonistic publicist Gretchen (Aya Cash); the show started including the shenanigans of their even-more damaged best friends, the shellshocked veteran Edgar (Desmin Borges) and the reluctantly reformed party girl Lindsay (Kether Donohue). Not surprisingly, the best scenes in the Season Two premiere — “The Sweater People” — involve the sidekicks, with a smitten Edgar following Lindsay around while she’s trying to bang her way back into the heart of the husband who left her unexpectedly at the end of last year’s finale. These two are in a lot of ways the conscience of You’re the Worst, showing what might happen if the main characters spun any further out of control.
But that’s not to knock our newly cohabitating heroes, who spend the episode nearly killing themselves to prove that they can be a couple and still live like rock stars. Even as these two try desperately not to be ordinary, they’re still ashamed by each other’s lapses in basic civility. (Gretchen: “Who knows their address?” Jimmy: “People. Kidnapped children. This dog I saw on Dateline who rides the bus to the park.”) Adults who proudly behave like irresponsible teens are as common on TV as houseflies, and twice as pesky. But funny is funny, and so far this show has found something new — not to mention hilarious, and oddly touching — in the whole concept of dangerously arrested adolescence.
4. Ferrell Takes the Field; Mendoza enters the booth (HBO/ESPN)
Back in the spring, Will Ferrell livened up an otherwise dull day of exhibition baseball—and raised money for the scholarship fund Cancer For College — by attempting to play 10 different positions for 10 different major league teams. The resulting HBO documentary offers a behind-the-scenes look at how he pulled that off, woven through an hour-long collection of the day’s best gags, from the comedian yelling at Oakland A’s general manager Billy Bean for “trading” him to his tenure as a third-base coach, holding up a sign that reads, “Remember These Games Don’t Count.” More than anything, this special is a celebration of the star’s infectious goofiness, which can make even a routine grounder into something sublime.
Elsewhere in the world of sports, ESPN is shaking up its flagship show SportsCenter by remaking it into a nightly solo showcase for one of the network’s brightest talents, anchor Scott Van Pelt. But the best move the network has made this year is promoting baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza to the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast booth, to replace suspended color commentator Curt Schilling. In addition to being insightful and enjoyably conversational, Mendoza is the first woman to call a major league game for “The Worldwide Leader In Sports” — which is crazy, given the huge number of female athletes and fans. Now we just need MLB Network to follow suit, and let women handle more than just the highlight shows.
3. Animated superheroes abound: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vixen, and The Awesomes (Disney XD/CW Seed/Hulu)
Do you like Marvel comics? Of course you do. Then you’ll be pleased to know than in advance of the September 26th debut of Disney XD’s new Guardians of the Galaxy cartoon, the network aired a promising-looking sneak preview of the first episode, and released a slew of promotional clips on-line. Judging by what Disney’s unveiled so far, the animated version of the off-brand superheroes should be a sturdy adaptation of the hit movie — right down to the 1970s pop songs and adorable antics of Groot — as well as a way of incorporating more of the outsized “cosmic” characters and ideas from the original Marvel universe. In other words: Prepare to geek out, fans of The Celestials.
Oh, you say you’re more of a DC person? Then here’s more good news: The producers of the CW’s excellent The Flash and Arrow have created an animated adjunct, Vixen, which is being posted weekly on the CW Seed site in five-minute chunks. This past week’s third episode was the best yet, bringing in Oliver Queen, Barry Allen, and Cisco Ramon — all voiced by their TV actors — to help a frightened young woman named Mari McCabe as she struggles to control the magic totem that gives her animal powers. The animated format allows for wilder action than the live-action DC series can muster, plus the online show features the inimitable voice of Scrubs janitor Neil Flynn as the heroine’s foster father. What’s cooler than that?
For those who like superheroes but also think they’re silly, well…say hello to The Awesomes is back. Seth Meyers’ and Mike Shoemaker’s animated super-team satire kicked off its third season on Hulu last week with the episode “Seaman’s Revenge,” featuring Andy Samberg as the voice of an Aquaman/Sub-Mariner type who means to liberate all forms of fish — even the rock band Phish — from human oppression. As always, the plot is just an excuse to load up on goofy and/or raunchy jokes, which were mostly Seaman-related this time out. (Gadget Gal admits that she’s always found Seaman “very distasteful,” because when he not “on my back, he’s in my face.”) Share Guardians and Vixen with the kids; keep The Awesomes to yourself.
2. Key & Peele visits “Negrotown” (Comedy Central)
Want to know why the end of this sketch show’s stellar five-season run is such a devastating loss, both to comedy and to American culture? Watch the final episode’s “Negrotown” sketch: an homage to colorful, corny old Hollywood musicals and a fiercely angry critique of the state of contemporary race relations. Framed as the delirious fantasy of a black man who’s been slammed into a car by a cop — who stopped him just for walking down a street — the number imagines a wonderland where African-Americans can do what they want without worrying about being arrested or treated as fascinatingly exotic by white folks. You’ll be missed, gentlemen. More than you can possibly imagine.
1. Stephen Colbert eats Oreos and talks to the Vice President on The Late Show (CBS)
Given the versatility that the former Daily Show correspondent showed as the host of The Colbert Report, no one should’ve doubted that he could shed his old comic persona and slip right into David Letterman’s old seat. Still, it’s remarkable how quickly and firmly he’s grabbed the reins. Tuesday’s first episode showed some opening-night jitters, as Colbert tried to figure out how to adjust his odder ideas (like taking product-placement commands from a cursed amulet) to fit the expectations of the bigger venue. But he found a groove pretty quickly, right around the time he started gobbling Oreos as a metaphor for how easy it is to do Donald Trump jokes.
But the real revelation of his first week at the new gig has been the strength of his interviews with politicians. Freed from having to play the role of the cartoon conservative, he’s been honest and probing, trying to push Jeb Bush off his Republican-party talking points one night and then later delivering one of this week’s most powerful stretches of TV when he spoke with Vice President Joe Biden about personal tragedies and big career decisions. Letterman’s “cut the crap” attitude had its own humanizing effect on public figures, but Colbert’s taking a different tack, actively letting his guard down to get his guests to do the same. He may be following the same late-night talk show format as everyone else, but if he keeps producing Biden-quality moments, his Late Show is going to be the only one right now that’s a must-see.