I’m intrigued by the MacGruber franchise for the same basic reasons people watch reality shows about glass-blowing. You have a little blob of molten potential and you start filling it with nothing. It grows, it expands and maybe more colors and shapes emerge that you never could have seen if you’d just left the blob intact. But with each exhaling of breath, the artisan is surely aware that the expansion isn’t infinite; eventually you’re going to pass the ideal journey of that blob and end up with useless shards.
Naturally, some people will probably have rejected the blob outright and said “I prefer ceramics.” And other people will have been content to stop when the blob became, I dunno, an ashtray or a small cup. And still other people, even after watching the over-inflated orb go “Pop!”, will sweep up the pieces and say, “No no no! You just don’t understand! This is a deconstructed vase! It’s subversive!”
The Bottom Line
The ‘MacGruber’ cult is strong, but this won’t sway new converts.
When MacGruber was just a series of Saturday Night Live sketches playing off of the absurd cliffhangers from MacGyver, there were already people who felt that Will Forte, John Solomon and Jorma Taccone’s kernel of an idea had been pushed as far as it could go. So the creators decided it should be a 91-minute movie, which almost instantly generated a binary between people who found it irrationally unnecessary and those who deemed it brilliant. Over a decade after the release of the film, a box office failure and cult favorite, MacGruber has now become a Peacock TV series, puffing the premise out to eight half-hour episodes.
Personally, I fall into a MacGruber middle ground, wherein I understand completely what it’s doing and find it fitfully amusing and very sporadically hilarious, without quite finding it conceptually transcendent. This latest incarnation hasn’t quite reached the popping point for the brand, but it also doesn’t feel like TV has somehow become its ideal vehicle. The standout parts are still every bit as funny, while the gaps between those parts have only grown. I wouldn’t expect Peacock’s MacGruber to win over a single detractor and it may tax the patience of some viewers at my tier of fandom, but the fiercest of devotees will doubtlessly find MacGruber to be the MacGruberiest TV show of the year.
There’s room, incidentally, for a handful of new MacGruber converts, because the series begins with a five-minute franchise recap delivered in musical form by Maya Rudolph, playing MacGruber’s deceased wife. In eight episodes, it’s the best part, which I don’t mean as a criticism since literally every show on TV would be better if it began with a five-minute recap sung by Maya Rudolph. And before you start to quibble, you’re wrong. Every show. Ozark. NCIS: Hawaii. The Crown. Every show.
We left things with super-soldier MacGruber (Forte) pausing his wedding to Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) to repeatedly kill the villainous Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), even urinating on his corpse. Even for MacGruber there are consequences, and the series begins with MacGruber in a maximum-security penitentiary, only to be recruited by Laurence Fishburne’s General Fasoose to be part of a hostage exchange when the disgruntled Brigadier Commander Enos Queeth (Billy Zane) abducts the president’s daughter. It wouldn’t be MacGruber if he didn’t reach out to former assistant-and-wife Vicki, former sidekick Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) and his somewhat estranged father (Sam Elliott). The pursuit of Queeth is superficially about saving the world from a deadly chemical weapon, but it’s really about MacGruber coming to terms with a pivotal trauma from his childhood.
In the transition from SNL sketch to feature film, MacGruber ceased to really be a MacGyver parody anymore and evolved into an all-purpose action homage, with influences ranging from Michael Bay to Richard Donner, which carries over into the series without real augmentation. It’s one thing to lament that MacGruber has basically ceased to make life-saving inventions out of household materials, but it’s more notable that a franchise originally built exclusively out of death-defying cliffhangers has become a TV series without any real cliffhangers or ingenuity at all.
The movie, directed by Taccone, was the sort of clever parody that functions both as comedy and as an example of the thing it’s parodying, delivering action that was silly and still exciting in a way that belied a surprisingly low budget. The TV series, with Taccone and Solomon splitting directing duties, looks and feels limited in both scope and aspiration. Repetition is central to the DNA of MacGruber and fans would be disappointed if these eight episodes included only one instance of our protagonist ripping somebody’s throat out. But the show’s audacity is too frequently limited to gore and sexuality, with nary a set-piece lingering in my memory just a day after finishing the full season.
It’s the juxtaposition of unblinkingly serious performances and wild absurdity that forms the basic comic DNA of MacGruber, and Forte’s grasp on the character and his low-IQ brilliance remains impeccable. Pair Forte with actors playing it possibly even straighter — Fishburne and Elliott avoid even periodic winks at the camera — and you get goofy-dramatic fireworks that I guess might be meant to take the place of some of the stunts and explosions I found lacking. So maybe that’s the way MacGruber is evolving in its TV incarnation?
“MacGruber! Delivering 30-minute episodes all about daddy issues! MacGruber!”
“MacGruber! Not too much action, but everyone’s emoting! MacGruber!”
Wiig continues to treat Vicki St. Elmo — like almost all of the names in MacGruber, saying the names over and over again is half the fun — like a compendium of Wiig sketch characters and she generated most of my biggest laughs in the series, whether through subtle reactions, not-so-subtle accent work or game participation in those trademark ridiculous sex scenes. Unfortunately, Phillippe, a deadpan revelation in the movie, is wasted this time around and Zane has almost nothing to do (perhaps explaining why Mickey Rourke left the role, not that I’d want to apply conventional logic to anything done by Mickey Rourke).
There are a few completely unsurprising twists along the way, but they can’t keep MacGruber from running out of narrative momentum in the last quarter of the season. Without being enough for me to feel like this fragile glass bottle completely shattered, it didn’t make a case for the endless elasticity of the premise. I’m not sure what new medium there is for MacGruber to conquer in a decade, but you can be sure MacGruber fans are more than ready for the MacGruber: Cirque du Soleil Experience. Sigh. Come to think of it, now I’m curious, too.