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Todd Margaret's Uncomfortable Adventure
November 11, 2010  | By Eric Gould
 
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Besides giving us perhaps one of the great literary titles for a TV show, David Cross's The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margarethas also given us the next great cringe-comedy character, no-holds-barred indie-style, on IFC.

(The six-episode miniseries, which debuted this October on IFC after its original UK run, will rerun starting again this Friday at 10 p.m. ET. You can also download the episodes for $1.99 each at iTunes.)

Cross is a hardened standup comic, co-host and writer of the former HBO cult hit Mr. Show, an alumnus of Arrested Development, and recently played the self-serving producer Ian Hawke trying to corrupt the CGI rodents to his own financial gain in Alvin and the Chipmunks.

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In Todd Margaret (which he produced, co-wrote and directed, in addition to playing the lead), he's given us a schlubby office temp and habitual liar who's never been out of Portland, Oregon, yet by accident finds his way into a senior sales position in the London office for a new energy drink called Thunder Muscle. Very quickly, he realizes he is in way, way over his head, and has to go on with it, or admit failure -- worst, to himself.

It's a nightmare of the first degree, equal to showing up in school in underpants.

Todd is next in the line of television pariah royalty, completely unable to succeed because of himself in the style of Seinfeld's self-hating George Costanza (Jason Alexander), boldly going where he shouldn't like Larry David, with delusions of wisdom and power a la that self-important ignoramus with a heart, Michael Scott (Steve Carell).

The twist here is that Todd isn't so far gone he believes anything that comes out of his mouth. As the IFC tag line for the show says, "The world's worst liar. Honest." Like the rest of us, he's just going for what he thinks he's entitled to -- money, domination, sex, success -- and will say anything to get him there.

Co-conspirators Dave (Blake Harrison as his office assistant of dubious motivation) and Alice (well played by Sharon Horgan as Todd's unwilling love-interest) are all too astonished and sometimes pleased to let him continue on. As each preposterous idea builds on another, they watch him twisting uncomfortably in his own self-made wind.

Cross's Arrested Development co-star and ongoing Bromance, Will Arnett, is his antagonist here, in the form of regional sales boss Brent Wilts. True to form, Arnett (Running Wilde) is the pitch-perfect a-hole, spewing what are surely the most inventive sales trash-talking expletives ever devised. (Parents beware.) A blend of inappropriate sales office rants and gutter poetry, the high-octane insults and language are critical to the tone of the show, and Cross did not want to water them down. The stakes in sales are high, and so is the pressure to succeed. Any sanitized version would ring hollow.

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But as you might expect, given Todd's circumstances, Thunder Muscle isn't flying off the shelves. What does sell in this show is the odd, uncomfortable world Cross has created for himself and us to think about: who is selling whom, and perhaps why we shouldn't be so eager to buy the dream -- The Thunder, The Muscle-- in the first place. (Especially considering what's behind it.)

Cross's genius as an actor is his humanity despite the bald-faced lies he's spinning. His mix of determination, shame and perversity is complex and hard won. And the story is a Larry David-worthy stew full of plot threads crossing, missing and then colliding unexpectedly. (Cross says his success from the Chipmunks films has allowed him the creative and financial freedom to "lose money" on this project where he had the control to explore material that interested him as a writer, director and actor.)

The one stumbling block Cross has created for himself may be keeping Todd's gaffes always turned up to 11. The guy cannot resist going for the long bomb every play, so there's a dulling to the tone at points where Todd edges on beyond shrill.

Nevertheless, he is a nuanced and complex enough actor to sidestep, hedge and shuffle his way out of almost anything with a minimum of effort -- so perhaps we're just watching an artist dig himself the deepest hole to see if he can plausibly find a way to climb out of it. (He's been quoted as having empathy for Todd, who's not a malicious or mean character, just someone desperate to change his life through a bunch of shortcuts, all the while habitually shooting himself in the foot. The plus here: We get to watch someone else do that, sparing ourselves the humiliation of entertaining the idea of being someone we're not.)

In most cases Cross succeeds, and through his wit and invention keeps things moving from episode to episode.

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IFC, however, has a little 'splainin' to do in terms of the shows' format. Each episode is a day, and begins with Todd on trial -- he is coming to an ill end -- and then cuts to a countdown of how many days before the trial begins. We start at "14 days earlier" and end at nine days earlier -- so let's hope the rest of the series has already been shot, and the second mini-season of eight final episodes is to definitely come.

IFC hasn't really addressed this on their website or in press releases, and there are too many channel choices out there to be purposely confusing the audience. The numbers for this funky little show are most certainly small enough already.

 
 
 
 
 
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