Media musings: Conchords will help fill void left by Sopranos

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By Rob Thomas - June 12 2007

So "The Sopranos" finally had its last aria on HBO on Sunday night, and whether you found the series finale to be typically brilliant or yet another expectations-defying letdown, one thing is clear: Tony Soprano has left some big cement shoes for the network to fill.

The complex "Sopranos" was one of the chief justifications behind the pay-cable network's absurdly ambitious slogan, "It's Not TV. It's HBO." Now with "The Sopranos" gone, "Six Feet Under" gone, "Sex and the City" gone, "Deadwood" virtually gone and "The Wire" approaching its last season, HBO is looking perilously like TV. Or, in the case of "Dane Cook's Tourgasm," even less.

But with Showtime putting out one intriguing new show ("Weeds," "The Brotherhood" and especially "Dexter") after another, HBO knows it has to move fast out of the gate to fill that "Sopranos" void and remind its viewers that they're not paying a monthly subscription fee just for musty old episodes of "Real Sex."

Immediately after "The Sopranos" ended on Sunday, the network premiered the first episode of "John From Cincinnati," the beguiling new drama from "Deadwood" creator David Milch that features surfing, levitation, Ed Bundy and a mysterious guy named John who apparently isn't from Cincinnati. Haven't seen it yet, but the show's pedigree demands attention.

Last night brought the return of "Big Love," the terrifically entertaining show starring Bill Paxton as a Utah bigamist juggling the pressures of work, family, family and family. Featuring standout performances by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gennifer Goodwin and especially the great Chloe Sevigny as Bill's wives, this one hit the ground running hard in its first season and should be appointment viewing this year.

HBO is also premiering the fourth season of "Entourage" this Sunday, just two weeks after the third season ended, displaying a much more rigorous work ethic than any of the characters on the show actually do. But I'm not complaining, because "Entourage" is a big hit for HBO and will hopefully prove a nice lead-in to "Flight of the Conchords," a dry and winning comedy that has become a new favorite of mine.

"Flight of the Conchords," which premieres at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, features the New Zealand music-comedy duo of Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, two scruffy, likable guys basically playing fictionalized versions of themselves, roaming the Lower East Side in Threadless T-shirts trying desperately to be hipster indie-rock stars and not quite getting there.

Their manager, who also runs a dingy little New Zealand consulate, festooned with posters like "Don't Expect Too Much -- And You'll Love New Zealand," likes to refer to the duo's "fan base" to disguise the fact that there's actually only one fan.

In the first episode (which is viewable in its entirety at, not much happens. Jemaine (who looks like a cross between Mick Jagger and David Cross) falls for a girl at a party who turns out to be an ex-girlfriend of Bret's. Classic sitcom setup, but Bret doesn't really mind, and Jemaine loses the girl mainly because he's sort of odd, like the way he insists that because he's been with three girls, he's in "triple figures."

The gimmick of "Conchords" is that while the two lads are rather quiet and ordinary in real life, they express their "true selves" in the show's hilarious musical numbers, such as when Jemaine gets all Barry White on the girl at the party. I've never been a huge fan of the intersection of music and comedy -- nothing sends chills up my spine like seeing a stand-up comedian with an acoustic guitar -- but somehow it works for the "Conchords."

The low-key absurdity of Clement and McKenzie sort of filters classic British comedy like "Beyond the Fringe" through a music-blog sensibility. Jokes don't hit you between the eyes so much as kind of give a tentative wave as they pass by, like Bret's project to make a bike helmet that resembles his actual hair.

In a way, its modesty reminds me of the early seasons of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," before the seasons where Larry David went to heaven or starred in "The Producers," when he was just a guy trying to get a doctor's appointment.

If there's anything that's irked me a little about HBO's comedy offerings in recent seasons, it's the tendency to fall prey to the "It's Not TV" mantra and try to offer something huge every time, whether it's the star-studded "Entourage" or the envelope-pushing "Lucky Louie."

By comparison, "Conchords" is relentlessly unflashy, something that could easily exist on another network, even as an online series. That makes me heartened for the future success of "Conchords," and the hope that HBO is learning that we don't necessarily need another "Sopranos."

We just need something good to watch on Sunday nights.

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