Two episodes were provided for review prior to broadcast.
In the decade since Laguna Beach first washed up on MTV, socialite reality television has proliferated to the point where many states are more distinguishable by their Real Housewives than a flag or motto. There’s been no lack of time or content to figure out the hallmarks of reality TV that takes you into the homes of the rich and would-be-famous-but-will-settle-for-infamous. Another Period, a new Comedy Central series premiering this Tuesday, looks to mine these riches for a healthy vein of humor, and thanks to a clever spin, modestly succeeds.
The problem with parodying reality television in 2015 is two-fold, the first issue being that the balance between the two words in the genre’s name tipped heavily towards “television” pretty early on. Every expository talking head interview, every sound effect sourced from a morning zoo DJ’s keyboard, it all creates the artificial unreality of a Keeping up with the Kardashian’s-style soap opera that keeps the show entertaining. Reality TV has long embraced the elements that make it, at best, a circus mirror interpretation of reality, so lampooning the genre can seem like poking fun at a clown.
The other hurdle facing Another Period, which thusly proves that very funny people earn that description because they’re also very smart, is that a number of recent comedies have already perfected satirical impressions of reality TV. Three seasons of the Yahoo! web series Burning Love was enough to cover every trope and archetype a dating competition like The Bachelor(ette) has to offer. And it was the recently concluded Kroll Show that took to mocking just about every other reality show under the sun, with dead-on versions of anything from Teen Mom to American Idol to candid camera prank programs.
Arriving to the reality well a little late, Another Period works its angle on the world of silk-stocking debutants by setting the action in a time when rich white girls were more likely to be actual debutants. The series follows Lillian and Beatrice Bellacourt (Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome), a pair of Newport heiresses, as they navigate the day-to-day non-struggle of high society life in Rhode Island circa 1902. Maybe the subtlest joke in Another Period is that, for as pampered as the Bellacourt sisters are, their real world counterparts of Leggero and Lindome are just as industrious, the pair having created the series and taken on most of the writing duties.
And subtle Another Period certainly is not, though that’s not cause for alarm. Aside from the use of talking head interviews, the formal techniques of reality television aren’t employed here, meaning the goings-on of Bellacourt Manor are meant to be as natural as something like Parks and Recreation, despite the characters frequently talking confessionally. The jumping-off point for the series is as much Downton Abbey as it is Keeping up with the Kardashian’s, with the material largely riffing on early 20th century social betters who have the manic, sexed-up energy and ego of reality TV stars.
The air of sophistication maintained by the costuming and sets makes for a ripe juxtaposition to how the inane (and incestuous) Bellacourts carry themselves, and the Upstairs, Downstairs class divide in Bellacourt Manor means there’s lots of room for butlers and maids getting berated. Christina Hendricks plays a new servant girl who’s renamed “Chair” by her masters, because…well, because Chair’s a funny name to give Christina Hendricks. Another Period doesn’t sweat the small details in its parody of either the era or its TV counterparts; it just knows where the funny bits lie in each.
The pilot gets a lot of mileage out of gags that mock the social and sexual etiquette of the time, but your enjoyment of Another Period rests mainly with the performers. Reality TV send-ups are about as appealing to comedians as actual reality TV is to networks. The cheap and common language of the genre just means you have to throw a bunch of entertaining people into a room together, and the rest should sort itself out. Paget Brewster plays the Bellacourt matriarch, Michael Ian Black is the sycophantic head servant, and another half-dozen regular comedy folks round out the rest of a very strong cast.
All Another Period has to do is put a bunch of garishly dressed funny people into a room together, and the laughs usually follow. There’s clever writing and direction in spots here (the biggest laugh in the pilot might be a visual gag about a “secret” tryst), but more often Another Period lives off the energy brought to the show by its actors. It’s not a particularly smart gag, and you can’t blame anyone for finding it shrill, but the “Next Time On” segments at the end of each episode just present a montage of the cast screaming and breaking things. So far, the joke is two for two in terms of being hilarious.
What’s unclear after just two episodes is how long Leggero and Lindome can stretch out a bit that could have (or probably already has) been condensed to a couple sketches on another show, or a YouTube series. The web of sexual intrigue at the manor could pay big dividends once things get thoroughly messy, but the throughline for each episode, quite like reality TV, is thin in the early goings. The second episode flips the genders on “ravishment culture,” but doesn’t build the idea to a greater point or joke beyond (current conversation + old-timey dialect = funny?).
The pilot for Another Period proves what a perfect fit for a mashup Leggero and Lindome’s chosen targets are, and thanks to the miracle of modern television, you can watch it on Comedy Central’s website right now. It’s a great case for the series that the follow-up installment doesn’t bear out, so much will ride on how inspired the third episode turns out to be. A cast this good can usually spin straw into gold, but there’s a version of Another Period that won’t force them to, and hopefully it will present itself a couple weeks from now.
The premise and cast of Another Period make for a very funny pilot, but whether that's enough to sustain it as a series is yet to be determined.