March 4, 2018 was for America the night of one of the most momentous and paradigmatic Academy Awards ceremonies in recent memory. Weeks, months even, went into the building up of its immense proportions, which were as much historic and social as they were artistic. It was designed as a monument to all the hopeful and vibrant things that managed to escape from the vortex of negativity long roving across the land. A commemoration, simply put, of emerging voices and relevant stories. So revolutionary and radical were the circumstances surrounding it that they caused a horror film to be nominated for Best Picture and a fantasy film to win it. To have missed the events of that night, then, constituted an act of malice in the eyes of right-thinking people.
We are ever a nation drunk with malice, it turns out. The 2018 Oscars broadcast was viewed by a mere 26.5 million people. That seems like a lot but is actually a 19 percent decrease from last year’s viewership, making it the lowest-rated Oscars ceremony ever. For those for whom the direct avenues of power are closed off, the next available detour is often the power of refusal. As is often my fortune, I never go out of my way to seek power; it’s just something that falls before me offering its embrace freely. This instance is no exception, and so I feel it is my obligation to disclose the responsibility, wisdom, and prudence with which I wielded my power.
I was very tired at the close of that Sunday. Some time before dinner I’d finished and sent off a long essay that I had been writing over the last week, and so I was not interested in the grave matter of validating cinematic history. As with the conclusion of similar undertakings, I want to lighten rather than leaden my mind. I resolved to dive headlong into what scribes of online call “guilty pleasures.” So instead I put on last year’s film adaptation of Baywatch.
The effect that comes with watching a bad film can really only be equated with the effect of taking recreational drugs. Every bad film promises for viewers an intensification of their senses and an elevation of their well-being. The sorrows and stress that brought them to their viewing are vaporized in an instant. These effects are in some cases quite cheap and dirty, with short-term sharpening giving way to long-term dulling. Some viewers never quite recover from seeing Troll 2, The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence), or We Are Your Friends. It takes a shrewd sense to know which bad films will waste you and which will spark the fuse of your third eye consciousness. Baywatch did not, at first, seem like anything special. It looked mostly like a sure thing that curiously misfired. I soon found that I was mistaken. But rather than Helen Hunting myself, I was fortunate to traverse the cultural-space continuum and attain enlightenment.
In the annals of bad film, the status of Baywatch is pretty plain, and not in the camp way of the show on which it is based—it is simply a mistake. A strange mistake, to be sure. It was a safe concept wasted either by poor writing or by not casting it with more improvisation-friendly performers. (I am also quite certain that at least some part of Zac Efron’s musculature was CGI-enhanced.) Baywatch is that rare beast of an error whose charms have no effect on the contrarian fairy. The initial critical response was the correct one. It was not wasted for me because I found one bright spot, a North Star tearing a small but easily spotted rift in the film’s otherwise tepid void.
Hannibal Buress Is listed in the cast as playing “Dave the Tech.” I know this because as part of the not even five-minute stretch of his performance in the film, he is sitting behind a laptop, discussing some tech-based exposition to the film’s villain, Priyanka Chopra. He is there to keep the plot moving, which is another way of saying his character is killed off somewhere at the film’s midpoint. I remember his line-reading more than his actual lines, laconic and indirect, like any stranger at a party. His two modes aside from being dead are standing stiffly and sitting stiffly.
In a film that is predicated on physical prowess and movement, he is an energy sinkhole. The critics noticed. “Hannibal’s talents were terribly underused in a movie that needed some genuinely funny comedy,” Megan Schuster wrote at The Ringer. “Underused” might not be the right word. Oscar Nuñez was underused. Misused is more accurate. A better film would have cast someone who was at once unmemorable and more tonally compatible in the role—say, a Curtis Armstrong type. But this is no such film, and so “Dave the Tech” is a needlessly unusual addition, contrasting rather than complementing Baywatch’s beachfront utopia.
Burress’s persona in the film is detectable to anyone who watched The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim. As with their sibling shows, Eric Andre relies on absurd, surreal, and discomforting forms of comedy, but here it is more deliberately framed within a late night talk show format. Eric Andre is the manic, volatile host, who starts every show by destroying the set before it is quickly replaced. His guests—who don’t seem to know where they are—are more objects to prod or bounce off of then people to inquire about. Buress is the sidekick, who is more introverted and awkward. There is only one chair next to the host’s desk, so when a guest appears, Buress stands beside them and looks down.
The Eric Andre Show’s genius is not in its random antics like Doc Chicken but in its approach of the host-sidekick dynamic as a sort of parody of physics: Andre is the unstoppable force to Buress’s immovable object. It also highlights, if inadvertently, the distinction between people who disregard social mores and people who don’t understand them. In interviewing Lauren Conrad, Andre asks dismissively about what she does and later starts dismantling his desk with a buzzsaw. Buress asks her if she likes Waka Flocka Flame and then eats a head of lettuce. Buress’s deadpan delivery recalls Steven Wright and Bob Newhart, and in some respects Maria Bamford, for whom the tone is as much the joke as the content. “I have a question,” he says to porn star Asa Akira. “Do we have enough porn?” Akira replies, “No.” “I think there’s enough,” he muses back. That is not the limit of his style, of course. His standup is more spirited, with one of his sets more or less catalyzing the Bill Cosby rape allegations into wider attention. And his role as Lincoln the dentist on Broad City is more conventionally funny. But even there his presence shines a beacon on a virtue much maligned in our present atmosphere.
Few people understood or cared to know what constituted “low energy” until Donald Trump lobbed the term against Jeb Bush in 2015. Though as with anything Trump touches, language itself is servant to his own purposes. It strikes at the heart of what seems to disgust Trump the most: self-abnegation over self-assurance, apathy over enthusiasm, inertia over velocity. Surely if Trump had the ability of detection and power of execution, he would scour America and its territories for every person with a trace of low energy to rehabilitate them and to cordon off from the rest of society those whose rehabilitation do not take. Buress’s example, as seen on Baywatch and Eric Andre, does not deny cause for Trump’s revulsion. But it does show how low energy is often a valid social phenomenon.
Perhaps what went most wrong with Baywatch was that it got lost in translation. Instead of poking updated fun at a ridiculous ‘90s melodrama, it reverse-engineered the concept to convey an ideal world. Much of what was portrayed in the movie are things sincerely hoped for by most Americans: sunny surroundings, filled with positive and active people, for whom physical appearance is somehow both prized and not a big deal, and who are protected by the benevolent authority of The Rock. Nothing in it would cut against the grain of Theodore Roosevelt’s “strenuous life.” In that sense, the only plausible joke landed in Baywatch is Buress himself, who stands in the middle of The Rock’s hyperkinetic dominion as a weather reporter stands in the middle of a hurricane.
Less is left to the imagination with The Eric Andre Show, where there is more of a balancing act being performed. Andre’s love of chaos is met by Buress’s tolerance of it. Each feeds off the other in equal measure; yet while Buress is more in control, Andre is more dominant. It would be a most unusual paring if it did not so acutely reflect the true character of the American situation as it is now. In Baywatch every moment he appears on screen he averts the audience gaze, tempting them with thoughts of a world that does not subsist exclusively on charm, can-do attitude, wit, or conventional notions of beauty. That world is our own.
With this I mean not to pigeonhole Buress himself. As The Ringer points out, Baywatch’s ultimate crime was treating “2017 Hannibal Buress like he was 2013 Hannibal Buress.” I suspect that the “2017” means “more famous” and therefore more multifaceted. Far be it from me to say conclusively what Buress should be going forward, though it would not be a grave offence to suggest “better used.” If that means more conventional and mainstream work—maybe even a talk show or Netflix series geared to his own idiosyncratic charms—it would be no detriment at all to the wider world. But, if somewhere down the line it includes an ingenious and revelatory adaptation of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I, for one, would be more than delighted.