“When the pandemic first hit and all paths to traditional production seemed unlikely at best, I racked my brain to find a way to still create,” said writer-director Jeff Baena. What he created was Cinema Toast — ten brilliant mashups of old films with new dialogue that every film-school grad will wish they'd thought up during the pandemic. If you have Showtime and you haven’t sampled this yet, clearly you just put charges on your credit card for no reason.
Baena sold his idea to the Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark, whose indie production empire continues to spew out interesting projects, from HBO's recently concluded anthology series Room 104 to the documentaries The Lady and the Dale and Sasquatch. Working virtually with a host of directors and voice actors, they had hours of mostly black-and-white footage sliced and diced and dubbed with new dialogue featuring the likes of Alison Brie, Christina Ricci and Dan Stevens. The result is a strangely addictive if totally addle-brained love child of Bad Lip Reading and Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In a wise choice, the first Cinema Toast is the most accessible of the bunch — a recut-redub of an old Jimmy Stewart film that plays out like an episode of Grace & Frankie. (In a nice touch, real-life honey bunnies Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman were cast as exes who can’t stand each other.) It’s when episode two kicks in — and, perhaps, whatever mood-altering substance the viewer dropped beforehand — that things get weird. That one, a mashup of mostly industrial films, is held together by a byzantine Cold War-era canine conspiracy that not even the John Birch Society could’ve dreamed up.
You know that button Netflix just rolled out, “Play Something”? That’s pretty much Cinema Toast without the inconvenience of pressing a button. Just set this thing to autoplay and you’ll get about five hours of random-access TV with scenery, actors, and film stock changing every few minutes. The scripts are ADD, swinging tonally from Adult Swim sarcasm to TV-drama poignant, like the Loretta Young-driven “Quiet Illness” episode directed by Baena’s pandemic cellmate Aubrey Plaza (by the way, mazel tov, you kids).
Cinema Toast might ordinarily be a show I’d call “uneven,” but that would miss the point of why it was made in the first place. Born out of necessity and made on the cheap, Cinema Toast is infused with a love of the late-night movies and YouTube finds that, for more than a year, distracted so many of us from the drudgery of house arrest. I was less enthralled by the obvious gags — like taking shots at B-movie legend Ronald Reagan, whose presidency seems positively Wilsonian in hindsight — than by more unexpected and creative turns, like the Cinema Toast finale airing tonight. Directed by Dan Lowery, it is a tribute to film noir, a moody cocktail of different darkly-lit crime flicks with little dialogue and a surprising amount of suspense.
Next time a sleepless late night comes along, and you’re looking for something light, crispy, and well done to get you through the wee hours, pop in some Cinema Toast.
The entire ten-episode first season of Cinema Toast is available for streaming on the Showtime app and through the channel's on-demand partner platforms.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.