In one episode of Peacock’s new MacGruber series, the titular hero murders a squad of armed mercenaries in incredibly gory fashion. He punches his hand all the way through one opponent’s chest until the man’s heart comes out the other side, and bashes another’s face in over and over with a rock. After it’s clear that all of his enemies have been well and truly killed, MacGruber screams his own name to the sky, hurls the rock away, and returns to punching the one guy’s caved-in skull again and again and again, long after it’s become a bloody smear.
It’s overkill, but then, that’s been the M.O. for MacGruber since Will Forte first played him on Saturday Night Live nearly 15 years ago. In that original appearance, he was just an R-rated riff on Eighties TV hero MacGyver, forever failing to prevent explosions because he or his assistants keep getting distracted. On that first night, for instance, Jeremy Piven refused MacGyver’s requests for Piven to pluck out his own pubic hair, pick up a dog turd, or hand MacGruber a “bucket filled with old bum sperm.” When you start out by asking Jeremy Piven for a bucket of old bum sperm, there is nowhere to go but down, or up, depending on your point of view. The basic outline remained in ensuing appearances, even as the assistants and the preoccupations changed. One night, MacGruber fixated on losing all his money in the stock market; on another, Richard Dean Anderson himself guest-starred to reveal that MacGyver was MacGruber’s long-absent father.
In 2010, Forte and SNL writers John Solomon and Jorma Taccone took MacGruber to the big screen. The MacGyver-esque attempts at cobbling together life-saving inventions out of household materials gave way to a broader parody of both Eighties action heroes(*) and American overconfidence. And the R rating allowed for even more graphic content than the good ol’ bum-sperm bucket. Though the movie was a critically-reviled box-office flop (the New York Times declared, “The law of diminishing returns is enforced so stringently that the movie succeeds not only in negating its own comedy, but its very being”) its reputation has since been reclaimed by a small but vocal cadre of fans.
(*) Taccone turned out to be as good at directing fake action sequences as he and his Lonely Island cohort were at making fake rap videos for SNL. That skill at mimicry continues in the new series, where he and Solomon take turns directing.
The thing about MacGruber in every incarnation, including this new TV version for Peacock, is that he is too much, always: too sure of his abilities, too focused on something other than the task at hand, too juvenile, too horny, too everything. Every joke gets driven into the ground, dug up, and driven back another five to 17 times. That is just how both MacGruber and Forte operate. They commit to a bit so maniacally that the commitment becomes as much the joke as the bit itself, if not more. This is a double-edged sword, because when one of them clicks, the fact that it keeps going forever makes it even funnier; when it doesn’t, it can feel like you’re sealed into a cinderblock control room with MacGruber, Vicki (Kristen Wiig), and Piper (Ryan Phillippe), just hoping the bomb will go off as soon as possible to end your misery. You have to be prepared to suffer through the many unsuccessful gags to get to the ones that hit. And because Forte’s comedy is as idiosyncratic as always, the parts that left me doubled over with laughter may mystify you, and vice versa.
For the benefit of viewers who either didn’t see the movie or have erased it from their memories, this new MacGruber opens with a musical recap of the film’s plot, courtesy of the ghost of MacGruber’s late wife Casey (played once again by the great Maya Rudolph). The film ended with the villainous Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer) trying to murder MacGruber and Vicki on their wedding day, and MacGruber instead shoving Cunth off a cliff, riddling him with automatic-weapons fire on the way down, then blowing up his corpse with a grenade launcher. It turns out that several of these actions were highly illegal, and the show picks up with MacGruber in federal prison. He’s released by the straitlaced General Barrett Fasoose (Laurence Fishburne) when the terrorist Enos Queeth (Billy Zane, understanding the assignment) kidnaps the president’s daughter and demands MacGruber as the ransom. After failed attempts to reconcile with Vicki, Piper, and his own father (Sam Elliott, retconning poor MacGyver entirely out of the series’ mythology), MacGruber heads to the desert to face Queeth.
The expansion from 90-second sketches to a 90-minute movie to an eight-episode series has left the franchise’s sense of humor fundamentally unchanged. Queeth’s name is, like Cunth, a long set-up for a joke about the dirty word it sounds like. MacGruber’s fascination with pubic hair not only returns, but becomes a key plot point, as does his belief that “whoever smelt it, dealt it” is an immutable fact of life. You can take the man-child away from Jeremy Piven, it seems, but you will still wind up with him reintroducing himself to the world with the line, “I like things in my butt.”
MacGruber also continues to toggle between wildly confident badassery and beta-male childishness. He can rip anyone’s throat out in a variety of styles but he’s embarrassed by the size of his penis and prone to whining whenever things aren’t going well, which is often. I tend to be more amused by him in the former mode while also occasionally chuckling at him in the latter. As with nearly everything Forte does, from the NASA potato chip sketch on SNL to his wildly uneven but sometimes brilliant Fox sitcom The Last Man on Earth, there’s no hard and fast rule for why some parts are incredible and others unwatchable. It’s just part of the deal.
The show largely wastes Sam Elliott and his capacity to mock his own radiating manliness. (Not coincidentally, the Elliott-centric finale is the most underwhelming episode of the whole thing.) But everyone else is showcased well. Even after all his years on black-ish, it’s both startling and charming to see Fishburne in a project as silly as this. Wiig is a delight as always, while also somehow making Vicki’s unwavering attraction to our narcissistic, sexually underwhelming hero make perfect emotional sense. And Phillippe remains a game straight man, particularly in a later episode where MacGruber insists on putting Piper in a series of increasingly unflattering disguises.
Other attempts to expand cult-comedy movies into television seasons have produced more mixed results. (The two Wet Hot American Summer series on Netflix had their moments; just not nearly as high a percentage of them as the film.) MacGruber on Peacock, for all its flaws, has the same batting average the character has always had. He is, for good and for ill, the same at any length.
Peacock is releasing all eight episodes of MacGruber on Dec. 16. I’ve seen the whole season.