Do you miss Bill Clinton jokes and “Futurama”-era animation? Have you been longing to hear Dana Carvey’s voice? Will you enjoy an extended joke riffing on the Spin Doctor’s 1992 single “Two Princes”? If so, then Netflix’s animated series “Mulligan” may be for you.
“Mulligan” opens as aliens are about to successfully conquer Earth. Then, Boston meathead Matty Mulligan (Nat Faxon) and beauty queen Lucy Suwan (Chrissy Teigen) swoop in and save the day. With the entire planet in shambles, corrupt Southern Senator Cartwright LaMarr (Carvey) decides to appoint Mulligan President (and himself Vice President) in the hopes that Mulligan’s heroism will inspire confidence from the remaining populace. LaMarr’s also banking on the idea that he’ll be able to easily manipulate the naive Mulligan and Suwan (as de facto First Lady). This rebuild-society crew is joined by scientist Dr. Farrah Braun (Tina Fey), bookworm Simon Prioleau (Sam Richardson), and surviving alien general Axatrax (Phil LaMarr).
Together, this motley cast forms the component of a workplace comedy, complete with intraoffice romance, an incompetent boss (or two), and plotlines about managing up. “Mulligan” is more interested in making extended jokes of the absurd, like an ongoing gag on how terrible Dasani is (it truly is the worst bottled water), than the type of quick or knowing joke that would force a guffaw. It’s the type of show that made me smile but never laugh out loud.
Part of the problem is the setup—it may just be too soon. After three years of a global pandemic and humanity’s depressing inability to put aside our petty differences when facing a worldwide challenge, a comedy about the inability of humanity to rebuild feels … hopeless.
There’s not a lot of joy in “Mulligan.” Few of the characters are likable, starting with Mulligan himself. Faxon gives him the type of grating voice that, if it were on a kids’ show, I would make my daughter turn off. LaMarr is supposed to be delightfully evil, dropping made-up Southern phrases and sticking to tired wedge issues like refusing to build solar power because that’s for hippies. But they give him a sad backstory like we’re supposed to feel bad for the guy because the bunch of despots he threw his lot in with decided to mean girl (mean grown-man politician?) him.
The women, thankfully, do better. Suwan has the strongest moral compass of the group, and while she isn’t exactly sure how to help—old ways like throwing a celebrity benefit concert don’t make a lot of sense in the show’s post-apocalyptic barter economy—at least she tries. And she keeps at it until she finds something that works. The show is also smart about how female beauty works—how it makes people assume that Suman is stupid and how Suman wields her attractiveness deftly to open doors and win people to her side.
“Mulligan” tries to walk a similar line with working mom Dr. Braun, opening with some jokes about how even though she is now the world’s foremost scientist (and so most likely to figure out things like how to create drinkable water), she’s still saddled with childcare. Eventually, she figures out a patchwork of unreliable people to watch her two sons, but the fatalism in that joke hits pretty hard. She can’t save the world and provide a safe, nurturing environment for her children. Sigh.
Of course, the other problem is that when you only have two women characters—one is pretty, and the other is smart—well, that reinforces the idea that women can only be one of those things. It’s clear that’s not what “Mulligan” wants to say, but the implication is still there.
There seem to be a lot of unintended consequences of the choices combined to make “Mulligan” what it is. For example, the cast is remarkably diverse by Hollywood’s standards, with more than half of the principal actors being people of color. But “Mulligan” creators Robert Carlock and Sam Means squander this opportunity by putting too many of their Black actors in non-human parts, effectively erasing the significance of their racial and cultural identity. Meanwhile, the show’s white actors embody a range of white cultures, from LaMarr’s Southern drawl and casual cruelty to King Jerome’s (Daniel Radcliffe) pompous, British “classiness.”
It all adds to a comedy that feels like homework, wading through a dated aesthetic to arrive at a series of depressing scenarios powered by a negative, if all too plausible, view of humanity. Recent post-apocalyptic shows have succeeded despite these obstacles—“Station Eleven” trumped the power of art even in the face of humanity’s worst instincts, and “The Last of Us” found meaning, however flawed, in human connection. “Mulligan” doesn’t have that kind of grace and isn’t reaching for it. It’s reaching for laughs. But it doesn’t quite grasp those either.
Now on Netflix.