HBO Max's 'The Other Two' revives a dying breed of comedy

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Once upon a time, several decades ago, my very not-at-all flat screen television was glued to channel 51 for at least an hour a day. In basic cable parlance, channel 51 was Comedy Central, which was in a golden age of “Absolutely Fabulous” and “Kids in the Hall” re-runs, supplemented by upstart little shows like “South Park” and “The Daily Show.”

In the years since, Comedy Central has gone through several rebrands and had a few breakouts like “Key & Peele” and “Broad City,” but these days Trevor Noah seems like the only thing that’s keeping the network relevant (case in point, “Key & Peele’s” Obama Anger Translator sketch is still prominently displayed on their site).

It should be no surprise that the comedy landscape has changed since the days when cathode-rays ruled everything around us. Dissecting the comedic aesthetic of each of this year’s Emmy nominees is about the least funny thing one could possibly do, so I’ll just explain why the “The Other Two” is unlike any of them.

Written by a pair of “SNL” alums, the first season of “The Other Two” launched on Comedy Central before HBO snatched up season two and branded it a Max Original. The title refers to Cary and Brooke Dubek, a pair of slacker 20-something siblings whose 13-year-old brother Chase suddenly finds stardom through a viral music video. 

As Chase becomes the next Justin Bieber, Cary (Drew Tarver doing a John Mulaney impression) and Brooke (Helene Yorke from “The Good Fight” and “Masters of Sex”) cling to his coattails. Brooke starts “managing” Chase’s career, as well as her mother (Molly Shannon), who launches a daytime talk show. Cary, a struggling waiter slash actor, becomes an LGBTQ+ posterchild after Chase drops a single celebrating his brother’s sexuality.

Wanda Sykes and Ken Marino (“Party Down”) comprise the rest of Chase’s goofball management team, arranging fake celebrity romances, calling code red emergencies at the sign of acne and pivoting his image from boy next door to sex symbol to Hollywood Christian in order to make sure fans keep smashing that like button. Sykes and Marino, along with Shannon, are all completely off-leash and seem to revel in that freedom.

It has scored some major accolades from the Washington Post, which called it “the funniest show on TV,” and Variety, which called it “a new standard for TV comedy,” but I don’t think either of those headlines are particularly accurate. For me, it’s going back to the old standard for TV comedy. 

As much as I love the meta zen-of-comedy schtick in “Hacks” and the intellectual property mining of “Cobra Kai,” “The Other Two” is a different beast. “Ted Lasso” shares some of the same old-school DNA, but “The Other Two” isn’t concerned with teaching lessons. It brings me back to those afternoons glued to channel 51, when screwy situational comedies didn’t bother themselves with pesky concepts like “plot resolution” and scripts could just unravel into “Strangers with Candy”-style farce without the weight of responsible world-building. Scenes often play out like extended “SNL” sketches (or the Comedy Central classic “Upright Citizens Brigade”), with the quickly-shifting winds of viral fame allowing the writers to wipe the plot clean after every episode.

Sure, “The Other Two” does an admirable job of skewering industry vultures. It also captures the disappointment of pushing 30 without career success. Its lens on LGBTQ+ culture feels fresh, and bonkers dysfunctional family dynamics give flashbacks to “Arrested Development.”

Those themes are all well and good, but at its core, the plot is in service to the jokes. The show is first and foremost concerned with scoring lols, making this a rare capitol C comedy in an age when so many other shows in the genre flirt with prestige TV tropes. “The Other Two” isn’t trying to change your life — it just wants to make you laugh.

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