Sunday, November 27, 2022

Why ‘The Other Two’ Is Setting a New Standard for TV Comedy Right Now

In its second season, one of the sharpest comedies on television has found a new note: Soulfulness.

At least that’s among the takeaways from the fourth episode of the new season of “The Other Two,” currently streaming on HBO Max. The series, in its first airing in 2019 on Comedy Central, endlessly roasted its central duo, the siblings of a pop star who craved some of his shine for themselves, too. Now, it finds within their inching-ever-closer proximity to fame a need that’s poignant as well as funny.

This season, Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke) find small footholds in the entertainment industry: Cary as a host for a series of brain-melting online video series, Brooke as a talent manager for members of her family. Both know they’re trading on others’ success, but also feel like they’ve earned a piece of it by proximity.

And both, too, have spent so much of their dwindling youth hustling that they’ve missed out on what feels theirs by rights: The opportunity to find a romance, something that seems so easy for others and just outside both siblings’ grasp. In the episode “Pat Hosts Just Another Regular Show,” each makes a serious attempt to find that and fall short. The episode gets its title from Brooke’s commandeering her mother’s (Molly Shannon) talk show and stacking the guest list with potential partners she’s scoped out online. That none work out is a feat of comic escalation that ends up in an oddly sorrowful place this show keeps getting more adept at conjuring. Brooke ends up lonesome, calling her brother to keep her company in the brand-new apartment she’s living in, one that suddenly feels a bit too spacious.

But it’s Cary’s availability, at episode’s end, that’s even more striking. This episode also features the return of the show’s series-long fascination with “Instagays,” the tribe of online influencers whose appearance in Season 1 was a show highlight. Back then, Cary’s hanging out with them as an attempt to boost his own profile led to degradation for all involved: These social-media models were shallow and vapid, but Cary, using them while holding them in contempt, was somehow worse.

In this new season, Cary is on a make-or-break vacation in upstate New York with his boyfriend Jess (Gideon Glick), who has no idea there’s quite so much at stake. As he’s figuring out if he wants to be in a relationship at all, Cary encounters one of the Instagays (Jimmy Fowlie), who has transitioned to running a couples account devoted to the picturesque life he leads flipping houses with his partner (Constantine Rousouli). He’s taken on a tour of what life might be like were he to commit to finding an audience in the most mentally untaxing manner possible.

As ever, the details here are carefully chosen to indict the venal among us: The so-called “Property Daddies” live in a home decorated with Etsy-via-Pinterest mantras printed in little frames and a “gallery wall” of their finest Instagram posts; the space they occupy is a statement less of bad taste than of no taste. It exists as a backdrop against which to stage life as an entertainment for an undifferentiated mass of fans whom they seem to hold in contempt.

And yet there’s something compelling about their lifestyle — as anyone who’s ever lingered over an ad on Instagram knows, things are often popular because they’re enjoyable, and guilty pleasures are pleasures all the same. Jess is especially drawn to them, and why shouldn’t he be? They’re two happy-seeming fellows living in a nice house, making money and attracting attention just for being some version of themselves.

The resolution of this plotline — which sees Cary dumping Jess in order to attempt to date more broadly, and to run from domesticity — shows a welcome bit of growth for “The Other Two.” In its maturer, more rounded second season, this series is increasingly defined by what its characters won’t do than what they desperately just might. Cary, who in the past was willing to use a passing acquaintance with Instagays to boost his own image and, perhaps, his self-esteem, wants off the ride now. Part of this is because, given a bit of access of his own to the things he wants, he no longer needs the assist; a greater part may be that that first bit of success has opened his eyes to just how far he is from what he wants — or, really, from even knowing what that is.

A recent conversation around television has centered around the perception of earnestness that pushes putative comedies closer to drama, or to therapy between the characters onscreen and the viewers at home. I have sat out covering “Ted Lasso” in its currently-airing second season because my opinion has not changed in the time since I published a mixed-to-negative review of its first season; the discussion around it online now seems to be shedding more heat than light. But it is worth stepping back to note that earnestness is not, itself, the element that curdles comedy. “The Other Two” is absolutely upfront about what its characters are feeling and in its bid for sympathy; the ending, in which the siblings haggle over how Cary can reach Brooke fastest without spending too much money on a hired car, flirts with pathos.

What “The Other Two” accomplishes is balancing the understanding that we inherently feel for the people we are watching with the ability to draw out their least attractive sides. Cary wants to be single for entirely understandable reasons, and is entirely understandably sad on the other side of a breakup; getting there, he also treats Jess shabbily and sits in judgment of two acquaintances who are stupid but perfectly nice. Those friends’ pleasant hospitality exists in counterpoint to the home they’ve built, a monument to vanity and shamelessness. (This vanity is not so different from Cary’s, but more effectively leveraged — and they’re willing to help him do the same!) In embracing their lifestyle, Jess is being charmingly romantic, but naive and credulous, too. What plays out in this storyline is something yet more chewily satisfying even than the first season’s mutual-exploitation session between Carey and the influencers. Its openhearted appeal to viewer emotions is made on the basis of real willingness to show its characters in a light that’s imperfect, that’s un-spirational.

The same’s true elsewhere, as in Brooke’s plainspoken willingness to exploit her mother’s willingness to work hard — which seems from a certain angle like her giving her mom exactly the opportunity she’s always wanted. The show reveals its characters to us while insisting that there’s something in them worth rooting for. That’s a tricky balance, more so than the first season’s “Seinfeld”ian energy of treating Brooke and Cary as well-meaning scoundrels looking, first, to get ahead. But a little success suits “The Other Two” — both the show’s, in getting a second season that was no guarantee, and the characters’, in moving beyond the first leg of the rat race. “The Other Two” is demonstrating that getting a bit of what you want is only part of the story: For its characters, that has not yet turned out to be enough. And figuring out what is to come next is making for some of the most scathing, and the most human, comedy on TV right now.


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