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BARNHART

Peacock's Forays Into TV-MA Comedy Are Off-Brand AF

Like it or not, the streaming home of The Office and Saved By the Bell is TV-14 in its bones.
  • Craig Robinson's Killing It joins fellow TV-MA comedies Joe vs Carole, MacGruber and Bust Down on Peacock this week
    Craig Robinson's Killing It joins fellow TV-MA comedies Joe vs Carole, MacGruber and Bust Down on Peacock this week
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    On Thursday, Peacock is dropping the first season of Killing It, a comedy that it says makes fun of “America’s quasi-religious obsession with entrepreneurship and wealth.” In the opening minute of the show, our hero Craig is gazing out the balcony of his luxurious seaside condo. He turns around, looks us in the eye and says:

    “I know what you’re thinking: ‘This f——n’ guy.’ Right? Rich prick, right? … But let me be clear: I came from nothing. People want to say the American dream is dead. But that’s bulls—-. Because the story I’m about to tell you could only happen in the U.S. of mother-f—-ing A.”Then there’s a beat, the camera pulls back and our guy has the wind taken out of his sails.

    It’s a setup you’ve seen a million times, yet I found the whole thing jarring. A comic scene that should’ve been played for laughs gave off a completely different vibe than I was expecting, because it was so aggressively intent on being as foul-mouthed as possible.

    Before we go any further, this isn’t a plea for more “family-friendly” content or “clean comedy.” It’s a plea, rather, for producers of streaming TV shows to understand something about their audience: Just because you can say anything to them doesn’t mean you should.

    Killing It is a comedy that could work on network television today, except for all the F-bombs. It’s got a good premise — Craig is a guy living more or less out of his minivan, while dreaming of millions. And it has a lot of fun with a true slice of Americana — the Florida bounty hunting contest meant to reduce the population of Burmese pythons, one of the Everweird State’s most unwieldy predators.

    Having watched several episodes, though, I'd argue that Killing It would’ve worked better without all the F-bombs. This is a show on Peacock — not Showtime, not HBO, not even Netflix. And that matters.

    Let’s say Killing It were an HBO comedy. HBO’s audience expects certain things out of its comedies, and yes, cursing is one of those things. But HBO would also make sure that Killing It was different tonally than the version being shown on Peacock. It’s a hard thing to describe in a few words, except that you know it when you see it. So the question needs to be asked: Was Peacock trying to short-cut its way to an HBO- (or Netflix or Showtime) worthy comedy by telling its writers to go effing crazy?

    And if so, why? Why is Peacock, the streaming arm of NBC Universal, which has made billions of dollars on TV-14 comedies, suddenly moving into adult-rated comedy? Besides Killing It, Peacock has also recently floated Joe vs. Carole, a crime comedy based on the Tiger King story; MacGruber, an over-the-top extension of a popular SNL bit; and Bust Down, a raunchy comedy about four friends in Gary, Indiana. All are rated TV-MA.

    Of the four, only Bust Down explores genuinely adult territory and acts like it knows its way around TV-MA material. The others could have done just as well to leave the cursing out. Then they would be what they deserve to be: comedies suitable for any viewer over the age of 12.

    The streaming revolution, with its endless stream of content, has proven to be both a blessing and curse. For TV producers, it’s also a license to curse. There are no restrictions on streaming content, because unlike the broadcast spectrum used by local TV stations (including NBC affiliates), Internet communications are exempt from broadcast regulations about “decency” or “community standards.” Slap a self-imposed rating on the show and you’re good to go.

    Killing It stars Craig Robinson, best known as Darryl on The Office and the criminal Doug Judy on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, whose frequent escapes from custody were one of the show’s most beloved running gags. Could you do Brooklyn Nine-Nine with cursing? Of course you could. Would it be any funnier? How about The Office? The British version was TV-MA, the American version was TV-14. If Peacock were remaking The Office today (a possibility one shouldn’t rule out in this age of infinite remakes), would Michael Scott be swearing up a storm? Doubtless. But it would be off-brand.

    The NBC network and Peacock streaming platform are inseparable, regardless of what executives at NBC Universal would like to believe. It should not expect NBC viewers to have a different set of expectations for Peacock. After all, three of the biggest hit comedies during its first year in business all came out of the NBC crucible: Girls5eva, The Amber Ruffin Show and the Saved by the Bell reboot.

    In fairness, the other critically acclaimed comedy from its first year, We Are Lady Parts, was TV-MA. However, it came from Channel 4 in the UK, where standards are a little different; Peacock bought the show once it was pretty much developed. It’s a very light TV-MA that could have been cleaned up easily if needed.

    Peacock is to be commended for identifying other people’s content that can help build its audience. It is quite successfully renting Yellowstone from Paramount, for example. But the suits running NBC Universal should know better than to let their brand be defined by outsiders.

    And NBC Universal is still a brand defined by Jerry Seinfeld, Kelsey Grammer, Saved by the Bell and everyone who’s ever worked for Lorne Michaels or Mike Schur. These people created TV-14 comedies, the kind of shows where consenting adults might wind up in bed together and then later discuss in euphemistic ways their time in bed together. You could have kids in the room watching that and no one would feel embarrassed about what was said and done on the show.

    There’s something about TV-MA language in a show that’s TV-14 in its bones. NBC Universal has a long tradition of TV-14 comedy. Peacock is trying to build a brand in streaming on that reputation. It should stop trying to eff that up.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Peacock, NBC, Bust Down, Joe vs. Carole, Killing It, MacGruber, Craig Robinson