Oh, Mulaney. I had such high hopes for you. Sure, I know MLS and A to Z were gonna be hard to get through. I know Cristela and The McCarthys are unlikely to be much better. I knew Bad Judge and Selfie were going to be risky bets at best… but you, Mulaney, you were supposed to be the slam dunk. Great writer, awesome cast, tried-and-true format… you were secretly my favorite, the one I had the highest hopes for.
Why do you hurt me so when I show you nothing but love?
Look, Mulaney isn't awful and it still has a pretty good chance to be good. But the pilot is bad. Mulaney himself is incredibly awkward on camera, and the fluid yet flat delivery that made him a star as a stand-up is nowhere to be found. The writing has moments of true cleverness, but not many, and far too often it's the kind of extremely broad, obvious humor you hope was only stuck in there to trick the network (Fox, in this case) into picking up the show. The set-ups for all three plot lines are strong, but the payoffs are universally weak (ironically, one of those plot lines is about a joke with the same problem). The laugh track is abrasive, out of place, and disruptive, even by laugh track standards. The characters in this show function almost entirely without self-awareness, which in theory is what makes them funny, but when they pause for the audience to get their jollies, it sort of breaks the illusion. Sadly, this is most egregious with Nasim Pedrad and Martin Short, who are the two funniest performers in the first episode and get most of the best line; without the laugh track, they'd have been excellent, but with it, they're merely good.
But "merely good" is something, at least. There's hope for Mulaney. As mentioned, Pedrad (as a neurotic woman scorned and Mulaney's roommate) and Short (as a self-obsessed Regis/Howie type comic turned gamehsow host) are funny, and already know who their characters are and what they want to do with them. Elliot Gould is given so little to do it's hard to evaluate, but he's Elliot Gould and likely to be good when eventually given time. As for the lead, Mulaney's problems seem to stem more from stage fright (odd, for a comic) than from a lack of talent, and we know from things like The Kroll Show and his own standup specials that he's capable of being comfortable both on camera and in front of a live crowd; theoretically, he'll figure out fairly quickly how to be comfortable in front of both at once. Seaton Smith, playing third roommate and wannabe comic Motif, is pretty much "black comedian" as a character so far, but like I said when talking about Bad Judge: characters starting out as a stereotype or cliche isn't necessarily a death sentence, so long as they eventually grow out of it. Frequently, when they do, they become some of the strongest parts of their respective shows.
I guess that last thought is pretty much Mulaney in a nutshell: right now, it's tired, cliché, and not terribly compelling but it seems like could be. Hopefully, as time passes, as the writers/star get more comfortable, the show will lean into its strengths (cynical observations and passionate, oblivious people) and away from its weaknesses (at this point, pretty much everything else, but especially comic set-pieces). If it doesn't, it won't be terrible- it has too much talent and too little ambition to fail at that level- but it certainly won't be good. I feel like I've said that, more or less, about half the shows this season, but that's symptomatic of pilot season. Pilot season is where everybody gets way too excited for a first date, overdresses, rambles incoherently about stuff they know nothing about, then awkwardly leans in for a kiss while their date is fumbling with their keys trying desperately to escape. Hopefully, though, by the third date or so our fresh faced young pilots will have gotten over a little bit of their nervousness, be a little more secure in who they are, and go down on us to make up for being so annoying that first time out.
I guess really all I'm trying to say is that, best case scenario, in two weeks Mulaney goes down on all of us.