No Activity review – Will Ferrell and Bob Odenkirk join faithful US reboot of Aussie cop comedy

JK Simmons, Amy Sedaris and Jason Mantzoukas bring new energy to a winning format: Waiting for Godot in a cop car

It seems like just yesterday the first season of Stan’s original Seinfeldian cop series No Activity tore down the freeway, with the actors Patrick Brammall and Darren Gilshenan in the front seats as dunderhead cops on a stakeout.

And by “tore down” I of course mean “parked in a stationary car”. And by “freeway” I mean “cargo wharf at night where nothing ever happens”.

In the universe of this show, created by Brammall and the director, Trent O’Donnell (who helmed The Letdown), a major drug importation from a cartel could go down at any moment – or so the characters think. The audience cotton on to the idea that the title No Activity is both a semi-regular status report delivered by Hendy (Brammall) to police HQ and a description of the show’s largely non-existent storyline.

No Activity was funny from the get-go, since the first minute of the first episode. It began modestly, with Hendy’s partner Stokes (Gilshenan) asking the question, “How was your weekend?” – only to be rebuffed with a disdainful, acid-dripping, “It’s Wednesday.”

The funniness of a response like that is dependent on the delivery. In this case, it also indicates how the show, like many great comedies, is both inherently human and intellectual – the humour arising from what the French philosopher Henri Bergson described as “momentary anaesthesia of the heart”. The semi-improvised scripts delivered plenty of amusing, absurdly derivative exchanges – pondering great philosophical matters such as the sex life of Siamese twins – with a tone reminiscent of improvised theatre at its best.

Subsequently, No Activity has had a dream run. There was the arrival last year of a (still amusing, though a little stretched) second season, and the premiere this week of a Hollywood remake spearheaded by Gary Sanchez, Will Ferrell’s production company. No Activity, the US version, will roll out weekly on Stan in Australia and on CBS in America, with the first two episodes available this week.

Janice (Amy Sedaris) and Fatima (Sunita Mani)
Fatima (Sunita Mani) and Janice (Amy Sedaris) man the phones at HQ – but only get a fraction of screen time. Photograph: Jared Mechaber/CBS

Brammall (now sporting an American accent) stars as a very Hendy-like Detective Cullen, the partner of Detective Tolbeck (Tim Meadows). O’Donnell returns to the director’s chair. He and Brammall also produce the new season and were clearly not remotely interested in deviating from their formula.

The US version is a virtual facsimile of the Australian series, even down to the settings and colour grading, and some of the jokes are recycled. There is enough new material though to keep it cranking for the old fans, who are likely to get a kick out of watching US actors work the material.

Episode one begins with an exchange between the two cops implying that there is a semi-erotic quality to wire head massages. But it’s episode two that really hits a groove, when a scene with JK Simmons (as a crotchety internal affairs investigator) is followed by a scene with Will Ferrell (as a garishly dressed, thick-witted criminal), and then one with Bob “Saul Goodman” Odenkirk (as an eager-to-please security guard).

The dude-heavy nature of the show is alleviated by the presence of Janice (Amy Sedaris) and Fatima (Sunita Mani) who are manning the phones at HQ. Not much, though: they get about four and a half minutes of screen time in the first episode and two minutes fewer in the second.

An exchange in the first ep between two motormouth criminals, Angus (Jesse Plemons) and Marco (Jason Mantzoukas), as they debate the merits of using “crazy guy” voice or “tough guy” voice during hold-ups, epitomises why the show is such an appealing prospect for actors. The format embraces performances within performances, shtick within shtick, with plenty of leeway to experiment, and a directorial approach emphasising human detail above everything else.

Jesse Plemons and Jason Mantzoukas
Jesse Plemons and Jason Mantzoukas kill time, in a format that ‘embraces performances within performances’. Photograph: Jared Mechaber/CBS

The setup generally involves one character going on a long rant, while their captive companion impatiently listens then argues about something they said. No Activity plays in minor key, a reminder of some of comedy’s essential ingredients. Shticks combine irreverence with mundanity, there is generous give and take between performers, and it shows an appreciation of incongruity in various iterations.

At its core the series is about killing time while waiting for a moment that never arrives: Waiting for Godot relegated to a cop car, or a nondescript room in a dingy warehouse. It is very funny; very moreish. Maybe wait until all of them are online then buckle up, strap yourself in, and … put on the handbrake. The show, geographically speaking, will take you precisely nowhere – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The first two episodes of No Activity’s reboot are available now on Stan in Australia and CBS All Access in the US


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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