In the US: Sundays, CBS All Access
I think Patrick Brammall has a plan for world domination. I really do. He was certainly doing his best to take over Australia, with The Moodys and then Upper Middle Bogan. Then there was Glitch, in which he was the lead, but that didn’t stop him from cameoing in The Letdown.
But that wasn’t enough for him, oh no. Then he tried his luck in the US with appearances in Life In Pieces and New Girl, as well two pilots: Furst Born and a remake of Upper Middle Bogan (what would they have called that, I wonder?).
Apparently, that still wasn’t enough for Brammall, because he also decided that as well as acting in TV shows, he’d start writing them, too. His first effort was No Activity, an award-winning comedy cop show that’s so far run for two seasons on Australian streaming service Stan and is going to start its third season this week. He co-created it and starred in it, too.
Enough? Never. Not for the Bond villain-esque Brammall. He naturally took the show to America and is now starring in and co-writing an adaptation that is now airing on US streaming service CBS All Access.
No Activity (US) isn’t a carbon-copy of the original Stan show, but it’s pretty close. It’s essentially a rolling series of comedic two-handers with very little action that follows two San Diego cops – Brammall and Son of Zorn‘s Tim Meadows – as they sit in their car on a stakeout making small talk. In a nearby warehouse, there are some criminals, one of whom is Jesse Plemons (Fargo). Back in the cops’ dispatch centre are old-hand Amy Sedaris and new arrival Sunita Mani (Mr Robot). And somewhere in the bowels of the earth are two Mexicans digging a tunnel (Narcos‘ Arturo Castro and Adrian Martinez).
Pretty much every episode is just a series of banal conversations, since not a lot is happening. Everyone is too way down the food chain to be doing anything important. The crims are too busy chatting to do anything criminal. The tunnellers are too busy digging and no one knows they’re there. The cops aren’t doing anything because no one else is doing anything. And that means the dispatchers at the call centre aren’t doing anything.
Instead, everyone talks about whatever’s on their minds, whether that’s the dodgy letter-exchange that Sedakis has going on with her son, what’s the most effective ‘character’ to put on if you need to extract information, what their comedy special is going to be called and how to tell a joke.
Given that this is from Funny Or Die, don’t be too surprised that there’s a whole bunch of top guest stars getting in on the (lack of) action in this version of No Activity. Episodes 1 and 2 see Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad) as a port security guard trying to assert his (lack of) authority over the cops by radio. Will Ferrell himself shows up in episodes 2 and 3 as the unemployed boyfriend of Plemons’ mum. JK Simmons arrives in episode 2 as another cop, who’s just moved to San Diego for the saddest and darkest of reasons. Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) will be along soon and Jake Johnson, who appeared in the Australian version, will also be showing up.
Cop to cop
Most of the focus is on Meadows and Brammall, with Meadows playing more or less the same indecisive, weak character as in Son of Zorn, but of the two, he still has the most going for him. Brammell bravely decides to play a socially inept, thoughtless and cowardly guy, who can’t tell jokes and will leave his partner out to dry at the slightest hint of trouble or effort being needed from him.
When Simmons tells his story and invites them both to join him deep sea fishing, Meadows agrees instantly because he feels sorry for him. But Brammall says “No” immediately after because “I don’t want to do it”, even though Meadows will now have to spend time with Simmons by himself. He also hasn’t looked at the watch his partner bought a year previously – the watch that was to celebrate 10 years of being partners.
As well as the characters being more or less the same as those of the original Stan production, the look and direction of the two pieces are, too, thanks to the efforts of the co-creator of both shows, Trent O’Donnell. But the plots have little in common, a quite different story clearly running through the episodes, even if not much happens in them.
You also have to pay attention, because details in one episode may become important in another, such as Simmons’ story in episode 2, which gets a different perspective from Sedakis in episode 3.
Is it funny?
The golden test, though: is it funny? Here, the jury’s a little out. Certainly, the actors are all having fun, clearly loving having lots of dialogue, the chance to interact with another actor for extended periods of time and the exclusive focus of the camera on them. Sometimes, it plays like improvisation, which inevitably leads to a lot of hit or miss dialogue.
But the episodes can be quite funny, with episode three probably being the funniest so far. Ferrell is in it far more than you’d think and is pulling out all the usual stops. Brammall and Meadows work well together, although they’re probably a little too comfortable together and not really working at pushing the envelope much.
The combination of the ongoing plots, including Brammall’s attempts to woo Mani by radio and Ferrell’s hole-digging, the guest cast, the reasonably juicy dialogue and the enjoyable banality of it all mean I’ll be sticking with No Activity for the foreseeable future at least.
Barrometer rating: 3