Weekly Web Series Review: Between Two Ferns

Hosted by Zach Galifianakis at his most awkward, “Between Two Ferns” represents what television talk shows might actually be like in a much more interesting world. Filmed to look like a low-budget public access show, but with big-name celebrity guests, the series mines uncomfortable humor to the fullest. Galifianakis frequently mispronounces the names of his guests and openly insults them, creating an environment of hostility that often feels almost too real. When not blatantly mispronouncing names, he is prone to making intentionally terrible puns out of them, like when he asks Jon Hamm if his middle name is “Honey-Baked,” or if he has considered changing his name to something like “Stewart Turkey-Link.”

The discomfort starts strong right out of the gate in the first episode, in which Galifianakis basically molests Michael Cera. There is a common thread of one-sided sexual tension in many of the episodes, and certainly not just with the female guests, though it may be strongest in the episode featuring Natalie Portman. It is a testament to her skill as an “acteress” that this episode is one of the most authentic, as if she were actually just in the midst of a nightmarish interview set up by the most incompetent agent imaginable. Other episodes are more clearly staged, and perhaps the weakest is the one with Will Ferrell, if only because the two are generally too chummy with each other, at least until the end.

The series is at its best when Galifianakis is openly hostile to his guests, like the episodes featuring Ben Stiller and “Brad Lee Cooper.” Though this hostility is common throughout the series, only “Conan O. Brien” gets an explanation, which is that Galifianakis thought he had a shot at “The Tonight Show.” Another especially convincing episode features Galifianakis’ “twin brother,” Seth, interviewing a wooden-faced Sean Penn, who really seems like he might haul off and punch Galifianakis at any moment. As with Portman, it is Penn’s acting skill that pulls off the joke so well.

A pitch-perfect spoof of bad, desperate public access talk shows, “Between Two Ferns” is easily one of the best offerings from the always enjoyable Funny or Die. Even the opening and closing theme music feels authentic, though it is actually lifted from Bernard Herrmann‘s “Taxi Driver” score, which adds to Galifianakis’ creepy, angry vibe. I’m not sure how well it would work as a full-length show on television, but in the small segments available online, it is hilarious.

  

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The Light from the TV Shows: Exploring “Hidden City with Marcus Sakey”

If Marcus Sakey’s name doesn’t mean anything to you…well, first of all, maybe don’t tell him. He’s a nice guy. I wouldn’t want you to hurt his feelings. But beyond that, it probably means that you need to pick up the pace when it comes to reading top-notch crime thrillers. His debut novel, 2007′s The Blade Itself, was featured as a New York Times Editor’s Pick was named by Esquire as one of the 5 Best Reads of the year, and he’s since enjoyed continued success with subsequent novels Good People, The Amateurs, and The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes.

But we’re not here to talk about Sakey’s books. We’re here to talk about his TV show.

On December 6, the Travel Channel will debut “Hidden City with Marcus Sakey,” a series that will, over the course of its 12 episodes, explore 12 different cities around the United States – caveat: for these purposes, we’re treating the Florida Keys as one big city – by investigating some of the more sordid (or at least less than cheery) parts of their pasts. For example, in Boston, Sakey explores the history of the Boston Strangler. In Chicago, he looks into the infamous protest riot of 1968. Neither is the sort of thing that’d pop up on the cover of a tourism brochure, but it is the sort of thing that fascinates Sakey. I’ve had a chance to screen the first two episodes of the series, which, not coincidentally, find Sakey working his way through Chicago and Boston, and I found it to be highly enthralling viewing.

Okay, so maybe Sakey doesn’t have the eccentric intensity of, say, James Ellroy. (If you haven’t seen Ellroy’s series “L.A.: City of Demons,” I highly recommend it.) But you can sense Sakey’s fascination with the material he’s discussing and the people with whom he’s conversing, which goes a long way. Plus, c’mon, it’s the guy’s first time playing host. Give him a chance to grow into the role, huh? And, anyway, the end of his adventures in Chicago, one thing’s for sure: he’s up for anything if it’ll help him get a better handle on the discussion at hand…even if it involves being temporarily blinded.

Bullz-Eye: So I checked out both of the episodes on the screener yesterday…

Marcus Sakey: Oh, cool! What did you think?

BE: A lot of fun, to say the least.

MS: Beautiful! Thanks, man, I appreciate it.

BE: In fact, I went on Facebook right after I watched it and said that my eyes were burning just watching the Chicago episode.

MS: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think part of the reason I ended up hosting this was that my friend and producer felt that I was dumb enough to get pepper-sprayed.

BE: It’s a good selling point.

MS: [Laughs.] Yeah. Sometimes not being that smart has its advantages.

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