There are a lot of very funny, very talented actors forced to take small, dumb paycheck roles on bad television shows and in seriously shitty movies because they are very funny, very talented actors and Hollywood has no use for them. This is the reason you see people like David Cross in Alvin and the Chipmunks, why Patton Oswalt was relegated to the weird neighbor role on “The King of Queens,” and why you only see guys like Craig Bierko in guest spots and bad TV movies. They have to make a living, and in a town that often doesn’t appreciate real wit and humor, some of our favorite television actors have to settle for roles beneath them. Have you seen what’s become of Dave Foley’s career?
This is why web series are great. It gives us an opportunity to see what some of these great actors are capable of if given the right material, or even material they create themselves. One of my favorite “TV guys” is Joshua Malina, who most probably only know from “West Wing,” while some others may have formed their TV relationship with Malina back during his “Sports Night” days. He’s good. But if you want to see the guy on TV, you’d be forced to seek him out on the occasional episode of “In Plain Sight” or the now-cancelled “Good Guys.” I like Malina. But I don’t like him that much.
That’s why “Backwash” is perfect: You get to see Malina at his full potential, which is to say: Intermittently hilarious and mostly amusing until he runs out of steam near the end. Malina has no clout in Hollywood, of course, but he apparently has friends from various projects he’s worked on over the years. Not great friends, of course, or they’d star in the actual series, but they’re close enough to give up 20 minutes of their day to introduce each of the “Backwash” episodes. Without disparaging the actual web series, it’s the hosted introductions that provide the best reason for tuning in (besides the fact that it’s free). Guest hosts include Alison Janney, John Cho, Sarah Silverman, Hank Azaria, Michael Vartan, David Wain, and, most memorably, Jon Hamm, all of whom spend most of their time making fun of themselves. If I can’t convince you to watch the entire series, you really must check out the 90 second introductions to each episode, specifically those of Janney, Cho, Vartan, Dulé Hill and, especially, Jon Hamm. Seriously, watch this.
The premise is this: “Backwash” is based on a William Makepeace Thackeray’s heretofore unproduced masterwork discovered in a backed-up pipe in a London tea shop’s bidet. It stars “the guy from the West Wing (Joshua Malina), a nobody (Michael Panes) and that guy from VH1’s ‘I Love the 80s’ (Michael Ian Black).” What’s the story? I’ll let Jon Hamm do the honors, from the final episode:
“Val (Malina) and Jonesy (Panes) have lived together for years in a mutually destructive master-slave relationship. One day, Jonesy inadvertently wields a salami like a shotgun and relieves a bank of $100,000. Then, after implicating their old friend and Kreamy Kream man, Fleming (Michael Ian Black), the trio goes on run, pursued by Officers Belter (Noah Emmerich), a singing cop obsessed with Les Miserables, and Bleaker (Joe Lo Truglio), his sassy little sidekick.”
Directed by Danny Leiner (Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), “Backwash” is funny. Sometimes spectacularly so, and sometimes only mildly, but even the less amusing episodes are bookended by the brilliant guest-hosted spots (and make sure to stick around for the credit sequences, which often include Matzo). It’s a bizarre blend of madcap esoterica, modern-day Groucho Marx, and hilariously unnecessary musical numbers, rife with gleefully shoehorned pop-culture allusions. Better still, it’s your only real opportunity to see Malina and Michael Ian Black in something you actually want to see.
Backwash finished its run in December, so you can watch the entire series here.