Ambitious, gonzo Web series 'Backwash' mixes mania, celeb cameos
Michael Ian Black, left, Joshua Malina and Michael Panes star in ‘Backwash,’ a Web series on that relies heavily on slapstick comedy.

NEW YORK - Like a lot of Web series fighting for eyeballs in the diffuse world of online entertainment, Crackle's new "Backwash" hopes to entice viewers with big names usually beamed out on bigger screens.

"Backwash," a manic comedy of 13 episodes, includes cameos from Jon Hamm, Sarah Silverman, Hank Azaria, Fred Willard, John Stamos and more. Each episode is seven to nine minutes long.

Celebrities have been drawn to "Backwash" largely on the basis of its central talent. Joshua Malina ("The West Wing") stars in the series, which he wrote and directed with veteran TV writer-producer Daniel Schnider.

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The first two episodes debuted Monday, with subsequent episodes premiering Mondays and Wednesdays on, Sony Pictures Entertainment Company's video website.

The series' executive producer is Danny Leiner, who directed "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" and "Dude Where's My Car?" Like those films, "Backwash" is an absurdist journey precipitated by a frivolous happening.

The twitchy, nervous Jonesy (Michael Panes) and the confident, arch Val (Malina) are roommates. Val craves the free toaster of a local bank promotion, with motives somehow related to revenge on his dead father. He bundles up Jonesy, gives him a roll of "meat in a sock" and sends him packing with this advice: "Jonesy, you're a winner, and winners something something something."

An over-the-top adventure follows, including an accidental bank heist and a lackadaisical getaway in an ice-cream truck. Their friend Fleming (Michael Ian Black) is roped in, too.

It's all slapstick to the hilt, complete with actual slapping and mallet gags.

Each episode is presented in "Masterpiece Theater" style, with a guest star introducing the episode from a plush library, contrasting the lowbrow comedy that follows. They, too, add another layer of satire.

"Good evening. I'm Hank Azaria, and, yes, I lost a bet," Azaria says.

Ken Marino ("Veronica Mars," "Reno 911!") sits cross-legged and opens in the customary fashion of "You might recognize me from ..." But rather than just listing a credit or two, he gives a litany until he becomes obsessed with finding out how you, the viewer, might know him.

These introductions are the best part of "Backwash." Even though "Masterpiece Theater" parodies are old hat, they at least keep to a formula. The antics of Jonesy, Val and Fleming are too cartoonish and unhinged from any reality. The joke is they can make up anything as they go (animation pops up in action sequences), a scheme that quickly tires.

For some, the surrealism of the series might recall some of Black's comedy, such as the short-lived 2005 comedy series "Stella." But "Backwash" isn't a Black venture (he's simply a player in Malina and Schnider's madcap), and it neither has the wit of "Stella" nor has Malina learned the lesson that comedy needs some kind of grounding to flourish.

Malina clearly believes in his show, though, and one has to hand it to him for fully committing to it and its humor.

With Crackle, Sony has shown a strong belief in the Web series, a medium that has struggled to grow into its own and find pop culture resonance. They have kept production value reasonably high by Web series standards, and "Backwash" is one of the better produced series out there.

One hopes Sony keeps the faith, and they're rewarded with more than "Backwash."

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