Will Forte’s ‘MacGruber’ Revival Will Dazzle Viewers in on the Joke: TV Review

Much like the character at its center, “MacGruber” has a surprising ability to withstand bombs.

In the late-aughts series of sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” Will Forte’s character, a riff on MacGyver, would inevitably get caught up in his own neuroses while attempting to dismantle an explosive, resulting in detonation before he came back, unscathed, for the next installment. After a 2010 film based on the character flatlined at the box office, MacGruber has been resurrected for a new Peacock series: The boundlessness of the streaming universe, and the need to make use of familiar IP, mean that MacGruber, undaunted, rides again.

This new series reverses certain core qualities of the old “SNL” sketches. What was once charmingly low-fi, with Forte and Kristen Wiig in sets whose silly artificiality was the point, has been enhanced and refined by access to real resources. “MacGruber” now mocks the excesses of ’80s action movies and TV while looking like a high-sheen action product itself. And MacGruber’s ineptitude, the very thing that made him so vulnerable to being blown up time after time, has been recast as a tactical brilliance. MacGruber is crass and immature, but he’s also a master fighter. While some viewers may miss the vulnerability Forte brought to his role in “The Last Man on Earth,” here, MacGruber’s inviolable sense of confidence, his ability to wisecrack his way through any situation, is the joke.

Which makes “MacGruber” feel, not uncharmingly, like a young boy’s game of toy soldiers. With his co-showrunners, John Solomon and Jorma Taccone, Forte has imagined a character whose immaturity, eagerness to be raunchy, and zany creativity with a weapon (or a weaponized punchline) can get him out of any situation. “MacGruber” seems intended for a narrow audience whom this reviewer is not among, but the sheer vim that went into stretching a one-joke premise into an expansive riff on the action serial is hard to deny. And the show’s breakneck pacing and expanded number of characters help that stretching-out: Right around the time one begins to recall why “SNL” characters are usually limited to a few minutes per appearance, the focus shifts to Wiig’s lounge-singer Vicki St. Elmo, a delicious bit of the sketch star in fine form. Elsewhere, Ryan Phillippe, Sam Elliott, Laurence Fishburne, and Billy Zane deliver performances that never wink; the trick of their performances is that these characters don’t realize they’re in a comedy.

In all, whether “MacGruber” works for you, or doesn’t, will depend on your patience for sophomoric puns and your knowledge of and deep interest in soldier-of-fortune flicks. But while much of the show can leave the uninitiated cold, its unity of tone, and its ability to keep spinning its simple premise into madness, are genuinely impressive. Chalk up another win for Forte’s unkillable hero.

Peacock will drop all eight episodes of “MacGruber” on Thursday, Dec. 16.

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