As played by Zach Woods, who’s made a career specializing in awkward, alarmingly pasty nerds, NPR host Lauren Caspian is the type of tote-bag-carrying, kombucha-swigging, self-described sapiosexual that any other show might mock by having him drop a particularly overexposed Hamilton quote. On Peacock’s In the Know, though, a simple “Immigrants, we get the job done” doesn’t cut it.
No, this comedy reaches instead for a deep-cut reference to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s West Wing rap, and sprinkles in throwaway details about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s autobiography or Lin-Manuel Miranda interviewing himself at the New Yorker Festival for good measure. They’re jokes precise enough that they feel like they could only be coming from inside the house, from people who know and love this world quite well. And while it takes In the Know a few episodes to come fully into its own, that combination of specificity and wry self-awareness distinguishes it from the start.
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Well — that, and the basic premise of the series. Created by Woods, Brandon Gardner, and Mike Judge (the latter of whom also voices Sandy, a spaced-out film critic delivering years-late takes on the likes of Andy Samberg’s Palm Springs), In the Know is rendered almost entirely in stop-motion animation, courtesy of ShadowMachine. From the painstakingly detailed dioramas of a public radio office, its Anomalisa-esque puppet characters conduct real video interviews with real, live-action musicians, actors, athletes and other luminaries I’ve been asked not to name here. The results are naughtier than your typical Terry Gross interview, though not by that much. The pacing remains relaxed and the tone relatively chill, even as Lauren freaks out about his “passive sperm” or suffers Veep-worthy insults like “This guy looks like the stork who brings miscarriages.”
Across much of the season’s six half-hours, this muted quality is both a bug and a feature. On one hand, it puts the comedy right in line with the stereotypically droll NPR register; on the other, the show frequently seems to have been aiming for something more laugh-out-loud uproarious. Besides Lauren, the most vivid of In the Know‘s characters is Fabian (Caitlin Reilly), a researcher described by one hater as “if Lena Dunham had a kid with Lena Dunham and was raised by an au pair Lena Dunham.” For too long, though, she plays like a one-trick pony who exists solely to huff about being offended and outraged — a stand-in for terminally online Millennials everywhere, rather than an individual we’re meant to care about.
But characters like Fabian almost cannot help but deepen as we spend more time with them. The bigger issue is with In the Know‘s interviews, which aren’t so much conversations as they are opportunities for famous people to chuckle at Lauren’s goofy questions (and Woods’ impressive skills as an improviser). In fairness, such a self-absorbed approach to the job fits perfectly with Lauren’s personality, and much of what he says is good for a laugh: “Did you ever think in the middle of a bout, I wish I could look my opponent in the eye and say, ‘I am enough’?” he asks a boxing star. But when even the more charismatic guests can only make so much of an impression under such relentless steamrolling, it seems a waste of star power.
It seems no coincidence that the chapters that work best are the ones that devote the least of their attention to the celebrity interviews — or that they come at the very end of the season. Lauren’s most entertaining interview comes in episode five, when he decides to convene an emergency in-house panel on race relations. The conversation devolves exactly as you’d predict from a white liberal trying to “solve” racism, but also in ways specific to the characters and dynamics we’ve come to know by now: Lauren’s lofty ideals metastasize into a temper tantrum that Carl (Carl Tart), the Black sound engineer, doesn’t want to hang out with him, while Asian American intern Chase (Charlie Bushnell) earnestly describes all the times he was “othered” for being too good-looking.
Meanwhile, Fabian is stuck pre-interviewing a professional MMA fighter, despite her moral objection to the sport. But what she’d prepared to write off as a waste of time takes a surprising turn when they end up bonding over their shared emotional and physical maladies: He suffers from “adult shaken baby syndrome,” she from “pre-partum depression” and “baker’s neck,” and both possibly from “what doctors will soon wake up and call ‘bone soup.'” The subplot is silly and funny but also unexpectedly poignant, and serves as a sharp contrast to the forced bonding Lauren is trying to engineer with his non-white coworkers. It’s as if having spent four episodes mocking all there is to mock about people like these, the series finally feels comfortable showing us what’s genuine and sad about them.
In the Thanksgiving-set finale, In the Know puts into words the very real fear driving people like Lauren and Fabian: that underneath all their fussy habits and showy political stances, they’re just like everybody else. Lauren’s spent the day trying and failing to pry his 13-year-old son away from VR video games in favor of witty repartee with The New Yorker‘s assistant copy editor; Fabian’s at the office because she’s ignoring the holiday on principle. “And for what? We’re still boring, Lauren,” she points out. “Now we’re just boring and alone.” Lauren being Lauren, he still needs to name-check the concept of “compersion” on the way to experiencing the epiphany for himself. But if the idea of being ordinary is their nightmare, it’s also the key to their show’s charms. In the Know ribs the Laurens of the world not because it doesn’t get them, but because it knows so many of us get him all too well.
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