Available on: Vimeo On Demand
Writer: Alan Tudyk
Director: Alan Tudyk
Part Birdman part Galaxy Quest part Extras, writer/director/star Alan (Firefly) Tudyk’s Con Man arrives on Vimeo with already near-legendary status. Funded via Indiegogo it raised a record-breaking $3.1 million making it the the biggest-budgeted series ever created for the web. So it has a lot to live up to, especially as it seems $3.1 million still isn’t enough; if you didn’t help fund the thing Vimeo is charging you a further £9.99 to download the 13 10-12-minute episodes. And you even give up your right to watch those after three months. It had better be half decent, then, and not just the world’s best-funded home movie.
The good news is that, judging by the four episodes available so far (more will be released on Wednesdays to come), Con Man is well worth a look, especially if you’re of the geeky persuasion. Even if it weren’t particularly funny, playing a game of “Spot The Genre Guests Stars” is enough to keep you amused. So far we’ve seen Sean Astin, Felicia Day, Nolan North, Nathan Fillion, Caspar Van Dien and Wil Wheaton among others, with Amy Acker, James Gunn, Joss Whedon and pretty much everyone from else Firefly (except for the internet’s favourite panto villain Adam Baldwin) promised in upcoming instalments.
But it is funny. Rarely laugh out loud funny, sure, but often painfully, truthfully, uncomfortably funny. It is a sci-fi version of Extras in tone and concept, there’s little point denying that. However, Tudyk is inherently more sympathetic and less monstrous than a Ricky Gervaise creation; when he’s being a dick, you actually feel sorry for him because you can understand what’s lead him there.
As a central character, Wray Nerely (whom Tudyk plays) has more in common with Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman. With middle-age encroaching fast, he resents the fact he’s still most famous for appearing in “the greatest cancelled TV show ever” – a sci-fi series called Spectrum. But he continues to appear at conventions because his post-Spectrum career has hardly been stellar. “You never win awards for acting in sci-fi,” he grumbles to his agent. Or his “convention booker” as he insists on calling her, because she never actually books him any acting roles. Equally irksome for him is the fact that Jack Moore (Nathan Fillion), who played the captain in Spectrum, has gone onto great things: Clint Eastwood borrow his lawnmower.
There are obvious parallels to Tudyk’s Firefly experience, but one big difference that stops the comedy coming across as a sour parody: Tudyk has had a very successful career post Serenity. Instead, Con Man feels like it’s affectionately poking fun at conventions and fandom. It’s funny because you recognise these fans that make Nerely’s life a misery; the guys who harass him in toilet cubicles and insist on hugging him uninvited; the “fans” who gush about you one minute then drop you like a show with low ratings when a Hobbit enters the room.
Felicia Day is immensely fun as Nerely’s personal aide at the con from hell, and there are some great visual gags about why she’s dressed identically to him that become weirder as the episodes progress. Sean Astin sends himself up wonderfully as a “star” who’s learned how to master the con circuit to get the most out of it for himself. And Fillion is Fillion.
Occasionally the gags are a little obvious; occasionally they’re flogged within an inch of their lives. A scene on a plane in the first episode goes on well past the natural punchline and it’s an affliction that recurs from time to time. There are some brilliantly constructed gags here but also moments when it’s lacking in sharpness. On the other hand, it’s better than most sitcoms on TV at the moment, and less irritating than the increasingly smug Big Bang Theory. It’s a comedy with heart, warmth, smut and spirited performances. Oh, and militant fans. And they’re scary.