The Buzz: 'No Activity' Finds Profound Humor in Boredom
No Activity is a rare beast in the world of television. It's a sitcom that gives us no punchlines, no joke setups, and not even much of a narrative to rely on. What we get instead is essentially My Dinner With André minus the dinner-- a story about people sitting around, talking about things they’d much rather be doing. It’s as honest a depiction of the phrase “No Activity” as has ever been seen on the small screen, and it also happens to be one of the most intelligent comedies of the fall season.
Based on the Australian series of the same name, No Activity follows Nick Cullen (Patrick Brammall) and Judd Tolbeck (Tim Meadows), a pair of San Diego cops who’ve been dispatched to keep tabs on a local drug cartel. Naturally, the cartel’s plans get stalled, and the duo is left to sit in their unmarked cruiser and play an excruciating, thirty-five day long game of stakeout. The cartel members they watch are stuck in a similarly boring predicament as they await further instructions, as are the dispatchers (Amy Sedaris and Sunita Mani) who desperately pine for an interesting call to come in.
But as No Activity proves, it is not action and intrigue that makes great television. All one really needs is a couple of strong performers and conversations so craftily written that they feel simultaneously mundane and hilariously engaging. There’s no topic that’s off the table here, from hormonal teenage sons to missing cats to Tolbeck recounting an odd encounter he had with someone who was using his favorite bathroom stall. That each of these is treated with the same severity as a drug investigation makes it all the more ludicrous, and, as a result, more entertaining.
Brammall and Meadows are comedy veterans, and their ability to rattle off nonsense without overplaying the joke or leaning too heavily into a bit is crucial to the show’s consistency. It’s all about nuance here, to the extent that their onscreen reactions can often be just as funny as what they’re saying. And in the rare instances that Brammall and Meadows do begin to wear a bit thin, No Activity is smart enough to bring in an impressive roster of guest stars to spice things up. Some of the notable guests slated to appear include Bob Odenkirk, Jason Mantzoukas, Jake Johnson, and Will Ferrell, who produces the series alongside longtime collaborator Adam McKay. Each dial their comedic chops to match the show’s chatty frequency.
That said, the best cameo thus far has been J.K. Simmons, who plays an internal affairs agent with a seriously jaded outlook on romance. Appearing at the tail end of episode two, Simmons delivers an epic, impeccably delivered monologue that starts with an invitation to go on a fishing trip and devolves into a detailed account of the ways in which sex (and the dating app Grindr, in particular) has ruined his life. It’s one of the few moments where No Activity steps out of it's comfort zone and goes big, and if the show can continue to put words in the mouths of major talent like Simmons, it's something I’d definitely like to see more often.
Given its reliance on and low production costs (there’s only a handful of sets), some viewers might come into No Activity thinking it's something they could recreate with a camera and a couple of friends. It’s just people talking right? How how hard could it be? Yet the further you gets into the series, the more you realizes how much talent and hard work goes into each half-hour episode. It’s commitment to its premise, and its willingness to travel down strange avenues of humor, puts it above conventional sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and more in line with clever, borderline absurdist fare like Angie Tribeca.
But while Tribeca can easily be seen on TBS or its affiliated app, No Activity does find itself on significantly less sturdy viewing ground. It’s being billed as the first original comedy series on CBS All Access, a platform that has yet to prove itself against streaming titans like Netflix and Amazon. As such, No Activity may suffer from a simple lack of accessibility, especially from those who were turned off by the underwhelming fare that All Access has offered thus far (Young Sheldon, Star Trek: Discovery) or are simply leery of signing up for another streaming platform.
So whether you want to roll the dice on a full subscription or test the waters with a one week free trial, I do recommend checking out No Activity. It’s funny and creative in equal measures, and in a world where most current sitcoms are lacking both, it's a welcome change of pace.
New episodes of No Activity air on CBS All Access on Sundays.