There is British comedy and there is American comedy, and though each influences the other, they do not easily combine. The darts fly in slightly different directions; the rhythms are a hair off, one from the other. Still, with transatlantic mutual admiration among comics stronger than ever, attempts will be made to make it work.
Starring and created by David Cross (American, writing with Shaun Pye, British) and set and made in the U.K., "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret," which debuts Friday on IFC, is just such a venture and a not altogether successful one. The six-episode series features Cross ( "Arrested Development," "Mr. Show With Bob and David") as an incompetent Portland, Ore., office temp who, mistaken for an aggressive go-getter by new corporate overlord Will Arnett — foul-mouthed and foul — is packed off to London to sell a North Korean energy drink called Thunder Muscle. (Writing on the can — eventually translated — reads: "Bad sanitation. Caution to proceed with beverage.")
Each of the three episodes I've seen begins with a hangdog Todd in a noisy British courtroom, listening to charges being read out against him; these include funding a terrorist organization, possession of biological weapons, possession of child pornography, blackmail, espionage, embezzlement, consumer fraud, drug running and persistent public urination. And then we flash back to see how he got there.
His primary companions on this journey are Alice (Sharon Horgan, "Pulling") and Dave (Blake Harrison, "The Inbetweeners"). Alice, who runs a café and experiments in molecular gastronomy — "flash-frozen, de-ionized oxtail toothpaste" and the like — is kinder to Todd than seems possible, and Dave, his single subordinate, is crueler to him than is amusing. Todd, of course, does not need much help to humiliate himself. His attempts to speak the local lingo — "Hello, hello, if I could have a wee minute of a brief spot tinkling of your time" — are as strained as his conversations with women, where he is both elaborately courteous and helplessly gross. (Cross' real-life girlfriend, Amber Tamblyn, plays a stateside imagined love interest.)
The show aims to mine what we might call the Comedy of Self-Soiling — Todd is often actually soiled in one way or another — which seems particularly British to me and which many do find hilarious. I have too, at times. Cross' character here is not an ocean away from the person he played on "Arrested Development," but in this harsher comedy environment the kicks he's delivered feel more vicious. Todd is in some baseline fashion "likable," in that he is not evil, only pompous and clueless, but he is exhausting company — not just a fool but a total fool, created to be abused. Lacking the most basic knowledge, he trusts bad advice and disdains good. And because he doesn't know anything, most everything he says is either a delusion or a lie, and (because he doesn't know anything) a clumsy lie. Elaborating on his claim to have spent time as a child in Leeds: "Every Saturday, we'd grab some fish and chips, go to the park, watch the Who."
This is fun at first, but it becomes tiring to see him continually swatted down. It isn't until the glimmer of a plot finally emerges, after Todd stumbles into a Middle Eastern market with a can of Thunder Muscle, eliciting sudden mysterious interest — that the series inches past mere mockery to the promise of more muscular misadventure. It becomes clear then that this is a kind of Bob Hope movie — one of those films in which Hope is mistaken for someone braver, smarter, sexier or more dangerous than himself. But where those were about the liberating power of self-deception, "Todd Margaret" plays more like a double warning: Mediocrity, know your place. Yankee, go home.