Mike Judge’s ‘In the Know’ Is A Show for No One
It can be hard to determine where a piece of art belongs on a tonal spectrum of comedy. What are the fine distinctions between a parody and a spoof, between insult humor and mere snark? Lots of projects are called satire that may not seem like they’ve earned a label so highbrow, and so freighted with expectations. But remember: strictly speaking, satire doesn’t have to be funny. As such, maybe the term does apply to In The Know.
Peacock’s new (mostly) stop-motion-animated comedy series, which premieres all six episodes tomorrow, is set at In the Know, a fictional National Public Radio interview show. Its host is Lauren Caspian (voice of Zach Woods), whose vibe lies somewhere between Ira Glass and Michael Barbaro. Lauren is assisted, or hindered, by In the Know’s staff: producer Barb (J. Smith-Cameron), engineer Carl (Carl Tart), researcher Fabian (Caitlin Reilly), culture critic Sandy (Mike Judge) and Chase (Charlie Bushnell), a college intern who has no interest in broadcasting but got the gig thanks to his wealthy parents’ donations. When we’re not witnessing the efforts of these very guilty liberals not to offend each other — with the exception of Fabian, who never lets pass an opportunity to confront a colleague for falling short of liberal-left ideals — we’re watching Lauren conduct interviews with live-action celebrity guests, who appear as themselves. In the first season, these include stars from the worlds of TV, literature, and film. If “NPR meets Space Ghost Coast to Coast” wasn’t the logline that sold the pitch, it might as well have been.
Many of these names will be familiar to comedy fans. Tart is coming straight off NBC’s sadly canceled Grand Crew. Reilly is both a legitimate comic actor and someone you’ve probably seen goofing around in a front-facing camera video for her 2.3 million TikTok followers. Smith-Cameron is an alumna of Succession, one of TV’s most savagely funny shows regardless of how awards bodies categorize it. Woods and Judge — who co-created the show with Brandon Gardner, a sometime actor who’s unknown to me, but whose 2020 short film David stars Will Ferrell, a Know guest star — previously worked together on Silicon Valley. Judge is, however, probably better known as the creator and star of such animated TV blockbusters as Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill. All in all, it might be enough for one to include the show, sight unseen, on a list of highly anticipated comedy events of 2024’s first quarter. Sight seen, “one” might like to issue a retraction, or at the very least an apology, so: Hi. Sorry!
The first episode presents the show’s driving idea, in concentrated form: Lauren has invited a member of the community to use the studio restroom. This is noteworthy because the person in question doesn’t have a permanent place of residence to which he could have mail delivered, which sparks a discussion about whether the preferred term to describe him and his situation is “homeless,” “unhoused” or “a person who’s experiencing homelessness.” Being even gently corrected on his language rankles Lauren, who primarily wants kudos for having extended himself in this way to this unfortunate stranger. Lauren even mooches praise for this from his interview subjects. The subject of this In the Know episode-within-the-episode is beauty, so he’s talking to a model and a TV host. Lauren further seeks to win points with the former by bringing up “the violence of the male gaze,” and with the latter by claiming he’s been trying to get the slur “strogre,” for “straight ogre,” to catch on.
As the day wears on, Lauren’s visitor remains locked in the bathroom, causing mounting discomfort for the other staffers who can’t use it, and frustration when Lauren refuses even the most benign suggestions for how to resolve the situation, out of respect for his unhoused neighbor. The risk that Lauren’s colleagues may develop UTIs is dwarfed by the risk that Lauren might do something an outside observer could deem incorrect. (That the controversial visitor can’t speak for himself, because he does not appear in the episode at all, is the condescending cherry on top of this extremely phony sundae.)
As I hardly need to say, well, ever, but particularly not in a U.S. presidential election year: few topics are less compelling than “the culture wars.” On the far side of the winter holidays, many people reading this probably have a story or two about a fake controversy a relative heard about from Jesse Watters. No In the Know character goes so far as to defend furries in elementary schools relieving themselves in litter boxes, but it does seem like something Lauren might do if this show gets a second season. One thing we do see is Lauren being cured of the hiccups by the sudden arrival of Carl, who is Black, and convincing himself that this scaring him more than anything else his other co-workers attempted is proof that Lauren’s body is racist. This kind of hysterical overreaction is typical of Lauren; Fabian has a separate storyline in this episode, but usually she’s standing by to tell Lauren that his hysterical overreaction doesn’t go far enough, since being the biggest killjoy in any given room is a cornerstone of her personality. (To be slightly fair: Carl’s serene refusal to play along in the racial roundtable Lauren spontaneously convenes was one of the few things in these six episodes that made me snicker.)
You should also be warned that these stop-motion characters are extremely unpleasant to look at. Their eyes are unsettlingly deep-set and glossy, and the motion of their mouths is distractingly ugly; I wish I didn’t have to see so much of their creepy little teeth. Whenever the camera gets too close, it almost looks like whatever material the figures were made from is disintegrating. Furthermore, In the Know makes no case for itself to be animated. There’s no elastic reality, no extraordinary physical feats undertaken that organic human beings couldn’t perform. Presumably the only reason this isn’t just a regular office comedy full of live-action actors is that recording everyone’s parts in pieces is cheaper and easier than coordinating all these respected performers’ schedules so they can be on set together.
Aesthetics aside: I feel like the audience that would laugh at their antics doesn’t exist. The kind of squishy liberals who agree with Lauren and Fabian in principle won’t enjoy seeing their views distorted to the point of absurdity, in the same ways dishonest Fox News commentators do. And conservatives who learned the word “woke” two years ago and have used it 700 times a day ever since won’t enjoy a show that confirms their worst fears about the “lamestream media” without even including a right-wing character to show them up. (For all the ways 30 Rock has aged badly, this was something it did well — having a famously self-described liberal play its most conservative character, but still.) Imagine your Jesse Watters-quoting relative. How many other entertainment options would have to be unavailable before they chose to watch a sitcom about NPR?
Political orthodoxy is annoying, no matter which ideology is being mindlessly parroted. But I respect you enough, dear reader, not to think I need to explain that what makes bourgeois liberalism tiresome is not exactly on the same level as a contemporary conservatism led by someone who is under multiple indictments and cheerfully identifies himself as a fascist. Even so, there are extremely valid arguments to be made about the limits of the liberal imagination in the face of this fascism — failures to defend reproductive rights, labor rights, educational freedom, platforms for organizing and so on and on. The list goes on for a while; you would never know it based on the straw men on this show. Satire is an incredibly important artistic and literary form. The targets In the Know has chosen to attack only underscore how soft they actually are. Everyone involved here has done better work: watch that instead.