Comedy Central

Harriet Tubman, Niagara Falls Barrels, And Hatchet Control: The Return Of Another Period

The second season starts as crudely and cruelly hilarious as the first, though with some diminishing returns

Another Period came swinging, kicking, and biting out of the gate last year, ferociously satirizing the inequities of the past with ebullience and an aim to kill nostalgia for it dead. Created by and starring Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome, the Comedy Central series was an icy bucketful of reality poured atop the likes of Downton Abbey, a show predicated on the musty yearning for a time when ordinary folk were expected to give up all semblance of an individual identity and familial fulfillment for the honor of feeding helpless rich people, brushing their hair, and cleaning out their chamber pots with the utmost propriety and care. [Note: Comedy Central and MTV News are both owned by Viacom.] Leggero and Lindhome’s laying bare of the grotesqueries implicit in the upstairs-downstairs social contract made for some of the best TV comedy around.

Ironically, then, the second season of Another Period, which returns tonight, has me feeling a bit wistful for the good old days of 2015. The bracingly brutal debut season was naturally going to be difficult to follow up, but the first three episodes of this year find the series comfortably stuck. It’s still cruelly and crudely hilarious, but the targets of the gags have been punctured through, while the sensational joke density of the first season has noticeably thinned. Just when it’s most in need of innovations, Another Period regresses toward the incest and poop-on-the-poor gags it started with, yielding significantly diminished returns.

Leggero and Lindhome play sisters Lillian and Beatrice, fame-seeking heiresses in 1902 who have parlayed their humiliation — the news of Lillian’s rejection from society and Beatrice’s affair with their senator brother (Jason Ritter) — into 15 minutes of notoriety. Banished from Bellacourt Manor for embarrassing the family, Lillian and Beatrice wander the streets in the season premiere until they stumble upon their next catapult to celebrity: a barrel over Niagara Falls. It’s an idea from that brilliant branding strategist Harriet Tubman (Bebe Drake), who freely admits that plenty of other people helped runaway slaves find freedom — but she’s the one who gets the most credit for it.

Another Period has struck out more often than it’s succeeded in nailing real-life personages. The pilot contains a great Helen Keller joke, but Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Mohandas Gandhi, and Leon Trotsky have all visited Bellacourt Manor and made little impression. Tubman is remade here as a sleazy street hawker, which isn’t anywhere near accurate enough to elicit a laugh of recognition, while the framing of Eleanor Roosevelt (June Diane Raphael) as a butch seductress is well-worn to the point of "why bother." On the other hand, bookish Hortense’s (a newly recast Lauren Flans) fashion question to the future first lady — “What are you wearing to the suffragettes’ rally, brown or off-brown?” — is on point, as is the depiction of a young FDR (Mike Welch) as the one American aristocrat even more spoiled than the Bellacourts. Naturally, the newly divorced Lillian, ordered by her father (David Koechner) to look for a wealthy man to marry, is attracted to the fratty asshole.

Because its characters are such buffoonish caricatures, Another Period has always worked better as a loosely connected series of sketches than the serialized sitcom it became midway through its first year. Season 2 unfortunately relies ever more on the soap-operatic story lines without fleshing out its characters, leading to jokes that feel like the ones that were rejected for the first season. The Bellacourt matriarch (Paget Brewster) is still opium-addicted, Lillian and Beatrice’s now ex-husbands (Brian Huskey and David Wain) remain in the closet, and the house butler, Peepers (Michael Ian Black), continues to rule over the other servants with an array of aggressive harrumphs. A new kitchen worker (Alice Hunter) organizes a strike, but it’s only the ascendant maid, Chair (Christina Hendricks) — who gives birth to the newest Bellacourt — that seriously threatens the oppressive order in the house. And yet it’s difficult to care about the fates of characters who were only designed to be scorned; even leeches have more use to us than these parasites and their brainwashed enablers.

Another Period’s occasional treads into contemporary issues have been more successful. This season, the Gilded Age–set comedy becomes sadly timely by having the half-witted Beatrice argue in the second episode in favor of "the good guy with a gun”: “Hatchets don’t kill people. People without hatchets do because they basically kill themselves by not having hatchets.” The rest of the episode — a debate about “hatchet control” that showcases the power of parody to neatly cut through rhetorical fallacies — is about as good as Another Period gets. Let’s hope for more moments like it; we need all the learning from the past that we can get.