Of the half-hour sketch comedy shows to brighten dorm rooms in the 1990s, The State was perhaps the slickest, Mr. Show maybe the giddiest, and The Kids in the Hall the most purely goofy. The five young men of the troupe were gentle in their ways, doing satire that resisted smirking. If they presented the least funny of these three shows, they compensated with hustle and charm. Maybe the key to their shared personality was how, in their heavy and unashamed indebtedness to Monty Python, they were pure aesthetes of absurdity. Maybe it was how they sought not to elicit explosions of hard laughter but rather a steady stream of small giggles. Or maybe it was just that they're Canadian.
In any event, the new eight-episode miniseries Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town (IFC, Fridays at 10 p.m. ET), which is playfully morbid but never quite mordant, finds this sensibility intact. The title is literal. The town is Shuckton, Ontario, pop. 27,063 and dwindling. The place is cozy: On the window of a Main Street storefront run by avuncular Doc Porterhouse (Dave Foley), a chuckling man with a bowtie and two layers of cardigan, we see the words "Town Abortionist" painted quaintly. A hand-lettered cardboard sign leans beneath it: "Free Kitten With Every Procedure." That's the spirit here: A silly smile sweetens the matter-of-fact daring.
Not unlike the Blaine, Mo., of Waiting for Guffman, Shuckton "is a small town with a big heart," as Mayor Larry Bowman (Bruce McCulloch) says, failing to note that the heart is defective. Bowman makes the claim in video representing Shuckton's pitch to the International Olympic Committee, which he dreams will accept his bid to host the Summer Games in 2028. Bowman believes that there is more to Shuckton than its rat-fur industry. And there is more to the man than his delusional side. For instance, there's his drunkenness with power and his wife's drunkenness with anything at hand. It's not particularly funny that their son is named Rampop; that the Kids so often lean on simple puerility is their chief limitation. However, it's fairly riotous when sloppy Mrs. Bowman calls the kid out to her car to play a familiar game: He blows into the convertible's alcohol ignition interlock device so that she can drive away in disgust.
Enter Death (Marc McKinney), who comes to Shuckton via commercial bus but tools around the place on a tricked-out bicycle made of human bones. A snarling and snaggletoothed figure, he wears a black robe more elaborate than the elegant number worn by Bengt Ekerot—feathers at the shoulders, a crimson lining, and some Stevie Nicks-type purple tendrils streaming in the breeze. He accessorizes with leather motorcycle boots and a matching codpiece (the amusement value of which is exhausted by its second appearance).
Death claims the mayor as first victim by prompting an unseen assailant to bludgeon the mayor with his remote control, thus initiating a subtly constructed murder mystery. In his downtime, he lounges around his room at the No Tell Motel, where a quiet night might find him paging through the bedside Bible. With black nail polish on his pasty fingers, he flips through the Good Book in a spirit of great boredom, reading impatiently though with a critical eye: "Nonsense. Gibberish. Ridiculous. Somewhat true." His presence alarms his fellow guests, according to the stammering manager: "They've complained of the stench of death coming from your room, sir. ... Could we just freshen it up a little bit?"
This is what the series does best, ridiculously dramatizing a ridiculous conflict between the mundane and the absurd. The verbal wit is fine-tuned. Listen to the woman who, hit on by a sleazy employee of the local news station, follows a slap in the face with a neatly turned line: "You gotta be kidding me. I'm three-eighths your age." It's the spaces between the snappiest dialogue that prove minorly wearying, capering that feels like padding, especially when these men, wearing skirts and wigs when appearing as female characters, trust in their cross-dressing to be funny in itself. The gals themselves—a taffy-brained meteorologist named Heather Weather, her histrionic field reporter colleague, a senile pizza-delivery woman—are where the action is, and the guys are at their best when working their slaying charm.