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by Jefferson Robbins "The State" probably had me at its opening kicker, a knockoff of the tumbling SPECIAL logo that prefaced every "Charlie Brown" program on CBS in the 1970s. The titular comedy troupe's eleven members are all about my age, so when these "twentysomething sketch-comedy whores" got their own show on MTV, this twentysomething sketch-comedy consumer was in generational tune with them. The members of The State clearly watched, and had grown up watching, a shitload of TV, just like their audience. Nostalgia's a powerful thing.
By the show's launch, MTV had been a cultural force for more than a decade--its demographic had just elected a president--and "The State" helped the network achieve equilibrium between entertainment, news, and the music videos that were still its bread and butter. The show had only a fruit-fly lifespan by comparison with, say, crap like "Road Rules", yet it managed to seed its performers and concepts pretty broadly across the comedy landscape in subsequent years. The players joined up at New York University, got their break crafting skits for Jon Stewart's early MTV vehicle "You Wrote It, You Watch It," and became the network's very own Kids In the Hall. To hear the members tell it, they spent much of their show's run battling MTV over content, almost resentful of getting a starring vehicle right out of college. "We were difficult to deal with," castmember Kerri Kenney-Silver says in one commentary on the show's long-awaited DVD release, "because we were sure we were right--because we went to NYU and performed in basements of bars." ("Oh God," Thomas Lennon chimes in, "we were pricks.")
Over the life of the show, Lennon emerged as the John Cleese of the group, cerebral and stoic but also no stranger to self-abasement. Kerri Kenney, as she was then billed, offered astonishing mimicry and facial gymnastics. Robert Ben Garant proved the most physically daring performer and a gifted, prolific writer. Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black provided the handsome smarm, Michael Showalter and David Wain the dork cool, Kevin Allison the frustrated officiousness (think Graham Chapman), and Joe Lo Truglio and Todd Holoubek most of the required straight lines. But practically all the members could cross those boundaries at any time. Their pieces seldom extend beyond three minutes, making each as digestible as the music videos that surrounded the show; the group creates a sense of continuity by having each sketch wander into the next. The State seem to enjoy undermining recurring characters--most of them, again, network-mandated--with skits like "Louie and the Last Supper" and "Kabuki Doug." They like unravelling television culture, too, smashing a laundry-product pitch-bear with an iron and luring Muppets to the window for a dinnertime slaughter. They prefigure the rise of reality-TV, with its frequent condescension towards the poor, with "People Really Live This Way." They unpack teen movies in their Footloose-like skit "Hepcat," in which every archetype of the genre is circled, explained, highlighted in bold.
Visually, "The State" is an artifact of its time. Ensemble member and director Michael Patrick Jann adapts lo-fi fringe film techniques to the mainstream: compressed aspect ratios, PixelVision, fisheye lenses, recording media that jumped from 16mm to Beta and Super8. It's what early-'90s video presentations did when they wanted to be edgy, or when they simply had no money. In the sketches themselves, rank iconoclasm nestles in alongside more mundane pop-culture commentary. It's the latter pieces, most of them demanded by MTV in the early seasons, that have dated the most--takeoffs on "Free Your Mind" PSAs and "MTV Unplugged", angry rants over "The Real World". However, the sheer talent on display, plus the group's willingness to risk alienating both sponsors and viewers, ensured heavy rotation in dorm rooms and justifies the show's preservation on home video. By the third and final season, The State are more or less unbound and delving into straightforward absurdism--but for all the hilarity of "Tanner's Guide to Jane," "Just the 160,000 of Us," or "The Funeral," you still get head-scratching entries like "The Animal Song" or "The Restaurant Sketch." Production values are way up; the sets by Ruth Ammon, always impressive, have grown far more ambitious; and when he has the time and resources, Jann helms headily cinematic pieces like "Porcupine Racetrack" and the Leone homage "High Plains Magic Fairy." If "The State" forces you to pan for gold sometimes, it's a rich streambed.
The State left MTV after Season Three, entering an ill-fated courtship with CBS. The group pissed off former patron Jon Stewart by opting to appear on David Letterman rather than on Stewart's own syndicated start-up show. Holoubek, who'd founded the troupe at NYU (but has practically no speaking parts in the MTV run), departed the outfit to become a computer theorist and conceptual artist. The State semi-disbanded in 1996, sending alumni on to TV projects like "Viva Variety," "Reno 911!", and "Michael & Michael Have Issues" and films like Drop Dead Gorgeous (which Jann directed), Wet Hot American Summer, Herbie: Fully Loaded, The Baxter, The Ten, Balls of Fury, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. For all these things, we probably owe them a polite "thank you" with a heaping dose of "what the fuck?" That's not to say The State are/were some kind of comedy Beatles, greater than the sum of their parts--only that you get different outcomes when you mix chemicals in different proportions. Sometimes the result is air freshener, sometimes Mace, in rare instances perfume.
"The State: The Complete Series" comes to DVD in a five-disc set which tries to pretend that Season Three was actually two seasons--the latter half is given its own disc and labelled "Season Four." (The series aired in cycles of five, six, and thirteen episodes, respectively.) Fullscreen image quality looks great, some segments popping so cleanly that the performers' makeup is open to whole new levels of critique. (One odd exception is the big production number "Porcupine Racetrack," bearing the kind of fuzz I'll forever associate with Shout! Factory's "Parker Lewis Can't Lose".) The Dolby 2.0 stereo audio gives Craig Wedren's assaultive but hummable theme song a wide platform, while the sketches themselves have serviceable dynamic range.
For their original broadcasts, the ensemble had free access to MTV's deep vault of music--ready-made soundtracks for its chaotic sketches--and was indeed encouraged to use it. Alas, music-rights hassles mean those songs are absent here. Instead, the troupe went back to original theme composer Craig Wedren to write new ditties. Bless him for the effort (the results of which are uneven), but once you've seen Michael Ian Black discover the joys of pants over The Breeders' "Cannonball," it's hard to watch the skit any other way. Buy this set to also not hear U2's "Desire," Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way," Smashing Pumpkins' "Today," Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me," and many more!
Roughly half The State file their group commentaries--and they are legion, one for every episode, recorded in early 2007--from New York, half from Los Angeles, where many of them (Lennon, Kenney-Silver, and Garant at the core) were working on "Reno" until its recent cancellation. At their best, these chat-tracks serve up lovely on-set memories between riotous chortles; at worst, they bog down in silence and boredom. (Showalter, for instance, appears to wander off and disappear from a session with Allison, Wain, and Holoubek.) The members credit producer Jim Sharp with refining their antagonistic theatrical approach into something that would work on television. Wain, a director himself (he helmed a modest hit in last year's Role Models), is constantly on-task with anecdotes and production details, for which his collaborators give him a lot of shit. There's no subtitle option for any of these discs, so you can hear the sketch or the commentary, but not both. Additionally, the commentators' profanity is bleeped. Again, what the fuck?
A bonus disc proffers what feels like a full season of the show all by itself. The original pilot that sold the series to MTV is featured and contains surprise cameos by Jeffrey Lyons and Meat Loaf. There are an amazing thirty-seven unaired sketches from throughout the run, and while many of them have snap, ultimately it's clear why they were discarded--though they have commentary tracks as well, in case you're not sure. In other bonus material, The State run amok at "MTV's Spring Break," destroys the set of Jon Stewart's MTV talk show to tout their premiere, and perfectly skewers The Conversation in a promo for their second season. Peppered throughout the discs are forced startup trailers for "Wonder Showzen" seasons one and two, "Aeon Flux: The Complete Animated Collection", "Human Giant: Season One Uncensored", "Beavis & Butt-Head: The Mike Judge Collection", and "Daria" (set to debut on disc in 2010). Originally published: September 29, 2009.
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