It’s rare to find a show that utterly sells me during the pilot. But with lines like “I propose a toast to the death of our social rivals!” and “More cocaine wine?” “Another Period” had me as a permanent fan right from the get-go. And from that point the show only rewarded my faith throughout its first season.
The show, which was filmed with a star-studded cast over surprisingly few weeks, is a mashup of the styles of “Downton Abbey” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” It follows the Bellacourts, a dysfunctional “one percent” family in Rhode Island during the early twentieth century. Over its ten episodes, the household members hold feasts for their dogs, fake abductions for popularity, and experience innumerable scandals. More often than not, episode plots are based on actual activities of families from the area and time period.
“Another Period” was created by Jeremy Konner, who directs each episode, and Riki Lindhome and Natasha Leggero. Lindhome (half of “Garfunkel & Oats”) and Leggero double as the leads. Lindhome’s Beatrice begins the show as emotionally stunted and incestuous, and only falls from there. Leggero’s Lillian is the social climber, who becomes increasingly desperate for anyone who shows her any sense of genuine human kindness (at least, from the upper class). Meanwhile, their husbands are having an affair with each other, but that’s just one of many subplots.
Every cast member is utterly perfect for the role. Michael Ian Black (“Wet Hot American Summer”) plays Peepers, the resolute butler of the household. Garfield (Armen Weitzman) is his underling, and is the only genuinely cheerful person on the show. Paget Brewster plays Dodo, distant matriarch and opium addict. Lauren Ash plays Hortense, the weird, ugly, and inexplicably progressive and good-hearted member of the family. Missi Pyle joins the second half of the season as Celery, who was named as such for “taking more energy than I gave.” And, most importantly, Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”) plays Chair, the scheming, seductive maid. Hendricks is by far the most fun in a cast that’s full of immensely entertaining people. Whether being overwhelmed by having to give morphine to a room full of children, or grinning as she ruins the lives of people around her, she is always the best part of the frame.
From the perspective of 1902, the show bitingly dives into a plethora of modern controversies. It starts with sexism and classism, and begins exploring sexual assault and police brutality. Every punchline leaves a wounding sting. In one episode, the Bellacourts host a beauty pageant (hosted by Jack Black) in which women compete with babies and cabbages. In the world of “Another Period,” (not entirely unlike the actual 1902), all three groups have the same social standing. Incidentally, Lillian attempts to win by dancing in “Irishface.”
Each episode enters bolder territory. And while not every episode hits its mark, “Another Period” shows exuberant confidence for a freshman show. By the finale, it proves it can do practically anything, for nothing is sacred. Leggero can burst into a musical sequence and then end it by shoving a singer off the screen. Lindhome descends into despair and acts out by personifying a sex-crazed baby. Two characters can bond while laughing about a dying elephant. Sigmund Freud (Chris Parnell) can prefer incest to homosexuality. Helen Keller can go into a violent rampage. Mahatma Gandhi and Leon Trotsky can get into a shouting match during Mark Twain’s dinner party. Ben Stiller (who doubles as the executive producer) guest stars as Charles Ponzi.
“Another Period” is tremendously funny as it revels in its anachronistic humor. And it takes full advantage of the bite that each joke brings. It works because it latches us onto these monsters for human beings. Even Beatrice and Lillian have enough humanity in them to make them sympathetic, even as they scream at babies or become them. And the show is able to juggle its cast of over a dozen leads. While some actors get less screen time than they deserve, everyone has chemistry with everyone else. As Peepers, serving as a bridge between the upstairs and the downstairs, Michael Ian Black is one of the few stars who interacts with most of the cast, and he amplifies the performance of whomever he has lines with. Fortunately, he often has scenes with Hendricks and Brewster, who give their funniest performances to date.
Much ground is covered in the series’ first ten episodes. All characters have enough closure that the series could end there. Fortunately, it will not. “Another Period” marches on; able to build off of the solid foundation it has already laid. With its cast, and writing talent, it could jump to any era of history and be hysterical and topical. And at this rate, it will soon be one of the funniest shows of the decade.