Review: Absurd and awful, Adult Swim is no escape. But it makes surreal times less strange

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Adult Swim, the programming bloc that shares space with Cartoon Network — coming in after dark like a disreputable cousin with a flask in its back pocket — is a place where the banal meets the bizarre. There is little of obvious comfort in the askew world it presents, except perhaps that in its cheery embrace of absurdity and awfulness, it may make the strange times we’re living in, and hopefully through, feel relatively less alien. It’s something.

Without figures in front of me, and acknowledging that this imbalance applies to television as a whole, the brand has historically been dominated by men, before and behind the camera. And so the appearance of “Three Busy Debras” affords something of a welcome female counterweight to Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s new sitcom/parody of a sitcom, “Beef House,” with which it premiered Sunday night in hers-and-his tandem. (Each runs 11 minutes without commercials: cartoon length.) It is a reminder too that women can just be as weird, profane and disgusting as men, and in ways not available to men. This is a liberating message, I hope you understand.

As plain Tim and Eric, Heidecker and Wareheim have been creating and starring in oddball series for Adult Swim since 2004, so oddball that oddball itself needs to take an intensifying adverb, like “oddbally”: See “Tom Goes to the Mayor,” “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and the horror anthology “Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories.” “Beef House,” their first new series in three years, is arranged as a typical multi-camera sitcom. Its main set is a living room with a front door at the right, a kitchen at the left, stairs at the back and a couch in the middle: the upper-middle-class, affectless, catalog-bought, averaged-out set an artificial intelligence might imagine. (The opening credits indicate that the show is set in “Rimwood, Florida,” but it is, of course, set nowhere at all.)

Heidecker as Tim (the swinging one) and Warheim as Eric (the straight one) share the house, without explanation, with three peculiar older men, played by “Awesome Show” alumni Ron Austar, Ben Hur and Tennessee Winston Luke Fortenberry III. (Not all are expert actors, which is very much the point.) Ergo the masculine “beef house,” which is treated here as a generic term — the residents refer to themselves as “beef boys” — though my guess is the title, and so perhaps the series itself, was inspired by any one of a number of restaurants that bear the name.

Joining them is Eric’s improbable police detective wife, a more or less normal person played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who was Meadow Soprano before that screen went black. (“This amazing person has decided to marry me and that’s the situation now,” Eric says defensively when an old flame of hers turns up. “Technically, he’s correct,” she adds.)

The pilot episode, which has been streaming online, follows a well worn path — Tim’s Army buddy comes to stay for a while and Eric is jealous — though everything that surrounds it is just a little bit off: the “sneak peek” Easter fashion show the older roommates present, the drapey cut of Tim’s pink suit or Eric’s plaintive cry, “What is happening to my life? This is no way to celebrate the Lord rising from the dead.” The second episode involves cleanliness and constipation and how the latter might affect Tim’s date with a hot neighbor. There will be scheming.

The comedy is at once ridiculous and disturbing, played — even overplayed — with bland insouciance; it achieves a sort of authenticity while repeatedly signaling that it’s all a construct, a performance informed by the idea of performance. One feels Heidecker and Wareheim would do anything for a laugh and that the horrible, humiliating acts they haven’t put on film or performed in public are just the ones they haven’t had time to get to yet. Queasiness is a legitimate reaction.

“Three Busy Debras” is the work of creator-stars Sandy Honig (“Vice Live”), Mitra Jouhari (a “Full Frontal” veteran) and Alyssa Stonoha (“The Chris Gethard Show”). The name of the series is also the name of their comedy trio, originally based out of New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade. (UCB co-founder Amy Poehler is a producer of the series.)

The television show they’ve brought you has a certain resemblance to their 2016 video short “Brunch,” in which the women dress in white and … don’t brunch. Their original videos, available at the group’s website, are stranger and more violent, interestingly, than the Adult Swim show, which, while not lacking in either, is made with actual narrative arcs and executed with professional creaminess for what might be relatively termed a mass audience. The look and feel of the series vaguely recall the ceremonial suburban melodrama of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” or early Hal Hartley films, while being less romantic and more surreal than either.

It takes place, to the extent that it matters, in “Lemoncurd, a charming town full of charming people, leading charming lives and eating charming food.”

I’ve seen two episodes; in the first, Jouhari-Debra and Stonoha-Debra accidentally crush Honig-Debra’s hot pool boy between their cars. (“Did you at least clean up the mess?” “No, I figured the pool boy would clean it up.” “He didn’t? Oh, he is so fired.”) The rest of the episode concerns dealing with the body — “I’ve never disposed of someone so handsome before,” says Jouhari-Debra, attempting to stuff the body into her purse — and covering up the crime. The mood is, one might say, psychotically lighthearted.

In another episode, a sleepover turns into a horror movie in which the guests, “trapped” in a bed too comfortably made, are aggressively encouraged to share their feelings.

The show is not expressly political; some of the ideas are too left field or silly (in a good way) to support any kind of issues. But there is an undercurrent of rage and sadness to some of the humor — even to a line like, “This is my sleeping helmet; it stops the dreams from getting out” — not unrelated to questions of gender and control.

“My house is the only place where I feel in control,” says Honig-Debra, pretending to share what she doesn’t know she in fact feels. “I need to be in charge because I don’t have any real autonomy in my life.” “I hyper-focus on menial tasks like cleaning to distract myself from the fact that my life is a vortex of unfulfilled potential,” says Stonoha-Debra in turn.

May this potential be fulfilled.


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