Greg Daniels, Mike Judge and Ex-‘SNL’ Head Writer Anna Drezen Teamed Up for ‘Praise Petey’ — Why Is It So Timid?
It’s been said that there’s nothing too dark to joke about if it’s the right joke, and there’s no better proof than the preponderance of comedy about cults. The reality: Cult members are forcibly separated from their loved ones, robbed of their assets and coerced into antisocial, if not outright criminal, activities. The gag: Comically outlandish beliefs, kooky matching costumes and moderately avant-garde sexual practices. Given the baseline level of familiarity most audiences have going into it, Freeform’s new animated sitcom Praise Petey had an opportunity to go bonkers. So why does it feel so tame?
Praise Petey is the story of Petra St. Barts (voice of Annie Murphy) — or, as she’s known, Petey, “a girl with a boy’s name, so you’re allowed to like me.” Petey’s life in New York City is Instagram-worthy in every respect: She does yoga and therapy, grabs coffee on the way to her job as a “Senior Assistant Editorial Assistant” at “the biggest fashion magazine in Midtown,” and spends her free time with her perfect fiancé, Brian. Petey has a chilly relationship with her mother White (Christine Baranski), a wealthy philanthropist operating a charity for unwed dogs. Petey has no relationship with her father (Stephen Root), and in fact, doesn’t find out he even exists until White tells her he has died, and presents her with a videotape he left for her. That’s when Petey finds out he has bequeathed her the town of New Utopia, North Carolina, and that he regards her as the only person who can keep the place going when he’s gone.
Petey has no intention of leaving her “city girl” life — not when Brian just got a big raise! That’s when she discovers that her best friend has been having an affair with Brian. In rapid succession, Petey loses her job and her apartment burns down — so with nothing else tying her to the city, Petey hops in a taxi and directs the driver to “the South!”
Petey misses a lot of hints during her first few hours in New Utopia, but by the time a well-respected character actor is volunteering as a human sacrifice, she figures out that Father was running a cult, and, that his acolytes believe her arrival to be the fulfillment of a prophecy that Father’s line will remain in leadership. Can a go-go city girl whose career was hampered by her crippling self-doubt rebrand herself as a girlboss — and does she even want to if what she’ll be girlbossing is a town full of brainwashed worshippers?
The show is Freeform’s first animated comedy series, but the network didn’t take a huge chance in greenlighting it. Two of its executive producers are Greg Daniels and Mike Judge, veterans of the adult-animation space as the co-creators of King of the Hill; and this show’s creator is Anna Drezen, a former head writer at Saturday Night Live. In addition to Murphy, Baranski and Root, the voice cast features comic stars with their own (forgive the expression) cult followings. John Cho voices Bandit, a New Utopia resident whose open hostility to Petey is complicated by his sexual interest in her. Emmett, a townsperson driven nearly mad by Petey’s request for an oat milk latte, is voiced by TikTok breakout Brian Jordan Alvarez. Future episodes feature guest stars Julie Klausner (Difficult People), Patti Harrison (I Think You Should Leave) and SNL’s James Austin Johnson and Kenan Thompson.
Watching the first five (of 10) episodes that were provided to critics, I feel like I can see glimmers of what attracted this serious comic talent to the project. One of the series premiere’s best jokes comes less than two minutes in, when Petey includes Brian among the enviable elements in her life as an It Girl, and we see he is a literal plank of wood.
Anyone who’s watched a romantic comedy has seen a Wrong Guy introduced in Act One so he can be thrown over at the climax, and thus can appreciate the gag of presenting Brian as featureless and inanimate. (When Petey mentions his raise, we get a cutaway to Brian in his desk at work as human hands staple a $20 bill to him.) Bits like this are why it makes creative sense to tell this story in animation rather than live action.
But Brian aside, the show is notably lacking in absurdity. Yes, we learn about members of Father’s cult trading in their American money for “comet bucks,” and New Utopia wedding traditions including a ritual dance with the Sacred Tortoise; I’m not saying Praise Petey is entirely bereft of surreality. But it seems to lack conviction. We hear that Father liked to start his day with “a heavy breakfast and a light orgy” — classic cult stuff! Then, though, we quickly learn that he defined “orgy” pretty loosely. One of the wives explains, “We mostly helped him with the TV remote and listened to him describe movies he’d seen on airplanes.”
When Petey initially expresses horror at the idea of taking over the cult, Father’s “right hand,” Mae Mae (Amy Hill), points out that, between her trendy yoga pants, obedience to her therapist and self-abnegation at work, Petey’s life in New York had plenty of cultish attributes, but this interesting point is quickly abandoned. Through the rest of the season’s first half, Petey yaws from an insistence that she’s not going to fall back into Father’s patterns, only to give in on accepting members’ worshipful attention, recruitment and collecting blackmail material on the townsfolk. Was Father’s cult a malign force in his followers’ lives? Praise Petey doesn’t seem to know!
With Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — the story of a girl abducted by a doomsday cultist and kept in an underground bunker through what she believed was the apocalypse — both recent and about as surreal as a live-action show can get, I guess I understand why Praise Petey’s producers decided an entirely grounded approach was the wrong way to go. A wackier-than-average fifth episode — in which Petey and her new bestie, Kiersey Clemons’s Eliza, rent out the barn as a wedding venue for basic New Yorkers — is a promising sign that the back half of the season will loosen up. But given that animation could have made anything possible from the very start of the series, what I’ve seen feels timid overall.
If Brian can’t be a regular character, we should at least get more goofs like him.