Screen Test

TV reviews: Mocumentary Tour De Pharmacy is sublimely silly, wrestling drama Glow disappoints

Repetitive jokes turn stale in Tour De Pharmacy and Glow

The best mockumentaries, such as Best In Show (2000) and This Is Spinal Tap (1984), manage to skewer their subjects without collapsing under the weight of their own silliness.

HBO's mock-doc Tour De Pharmacy does well enough on the silliness front, sending up the rampant drug use and manifesting absurdities of competitive cycling.

This isn't exactly topical - it would have been more timely to release this closer to 2012, when cyclist Lance Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France champion, was banned for life.

So the broader joke is a little stale right from the get-go. And the film does flog it to death. But what saves it is how sublimely silly, juvenile and crass it is.

A star-studded cast - including top-notch surprise cameos - re-create a fictional 1982 Tour de France, which is left in shambles when all but five competitors are disqualified in a drug-testing scandal.

Doped-up Italian frontrunner Juju Pepe (Orlando Bloom) is shown dying mid-race, setting up an extended gag about the numerous illicit substances in cyclists' blood - and the disgusting way they actually relieve themselves mid-race.

Adam Samberg (above) stars as a competitive cyclist in Tour De Pharmacy. PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Among the competitors who end up challenging for the yellow jersey are Marty Haas (Andy Samberg), a rich white boy from Nigeria who shows his African-ness by plagiarising the lyrics from the famous Toto song, which is just as culturally tone-deaf as he is; Gustav Ditters (John Cena), a "roid-raging" Austrian who is constantly getting into fights; and Frenchman Adrian Baton (Freddie Highmore), who turns out to be a woman disguised as a man.

Taking the absurdity up a notch is the fact older versions of key characters are played by actors who look nothing like the younger ones: Jeff Goldblum takes over from Samberg as Haas, Danny Glover is Robinson and Julia Ormond is Baton .

There are many dumb gags such as this, but the bigger swings are the cameos, particularly one by Armstrong playing himself.

It is funny and startling the first time, but it quickly hits diminishing returns. The disgraced cyclist pops up time and again to deliver the same joke along with his stump defence, which is that everyone was cheating. The effect is more cringe-worthy than funny and it feels too soon for him to be milking this for laughs.

None of it is especially effective as satire, either - apart from a throwaway reference to how boring some of the race can be. But Tour De Pharmacy is good for a giggle or three.

Betty Gilpin (far left) and Alison Brie star as wrestlers in Glow. PHOTO: NETFLIX

Another offering that repeats the same joke over and over again is Glow, a comedy-drama inspired by the real story of the first all-female wrestling show in 1980s Los Angeles.

Called the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, its fighters embodied vaudevillian stereotypes similar to those found in male pro-wrestling - the all-American hero, the black Welfare Queen and the Arab terrorist.

This is the first repetitive joke: that pro-wrestling is a big old soap opera and pantomime, and isn't that hilarious? Well, not if you're not into pro-wrestling.


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Still, as period re-creations go, this is a fun one, with plenty of big hair, leotards and shoulder pads, along with a wonderful soundtrack of 1980s synth-pop.

But Glow is reaching for more: It bears the imprimatur of Orange Is The New Black and Weeds scribe Jenji Kohan, who has created some of the most distinctive female characters on screen.

The trouble is, Kohan is not the main writer here. While well-intentioned, this underdog story about a group of women subverting the patriarchy falls short of her high standards.

The character studies are decent enough, if not especially original, and you do end up cheering for them to get their show off the ground against all odds.

There is also a serviceable tension between the two leads, Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin) - friends who fall out when Ruth sleeps with Betty's husband, and then have to work together in the ring. But is it ever in doubt that they will in fact come together and make it work in the end?

Glow also runs into a spot of bother with some of the offensive stereotypes it plays with. It constantly telegraphs that it is in on the joke here and that its real intention is to criticise the bias.

But just as the characters silence their conscience because they know the crowd will lap it up, you cannot help but feel the show might be doing the same.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'Good for some laughs'. Print Edition | Subscribe