Some of the darkest comedy in existence right now is hidden away on a faux movie podcast called On Cinema. The Adult Swim web series has been running for three years, and in that time it has slowly developed the fictional universe of two deeply flawed human beings constantly making one another miserable. It’s a weekly examination of an abusive relationship, and the dynamic between these hosts is as fascinating as anything on television.
On Cinema began as a simple joke: It’s a film podcast where the hosts offer absolutely no insight, but that’s the point, and they are firmly in character each episode. Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington provide a surface level description of the movie, mess up the names of the actors, and invariably give the picture “five bags of popcorn.” Virtually every film ever featured on On Cinema has received the full five bag rating regardless of quality, a commentary on critics who praise everything put in front of them with little thought.
So the show started as a parody of the podcast community, which is chock full of people without much to say but just want to be seen talking in front of a camera. As the series progressed, though, it began to move away from a mere satire of podcasting to become more of a character study of Tim and Gregg.
From the beginning, it’s clear that they despise one another. Take the fact that Tim stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that Gregg is his cohost, even after they’ve worked together for six seasons. He always introduces Gregg as his “special guest” despite the fact that he is there every single week. This is never exactly called attention to, but On Cinema revels in these subtleties that tell us so much about what a person thinks.
Gregg doesn’t like Tim, either, and he’ll respond to his cohosts jabs in a subtle, defeated fashion. When Tim welcomes him on as a guest, Gregg will try to assert his dominance by saying “It’s great to be back in my chair!” It’s hinted that Gregg envies Tim because he’s allowed to be host even though Gregg considers himself to be more knowledgable about movies. In reality, he’s as big of a buffoon as Tim, but in less obvious ways.
So why do they continue to work together?
Like Batman and the Joker, both men need one another. Without Gregg, there would almost certainly be no one to cohost the show. Tim appears to have a scant number of friends, and the handful of times he brings on a different commentator, it’s a total disaster. Meanwhile, Gregg needs Tim, as it’s evident that he isn’t actually a knowledgable film buff, so nobody else would let him on their airwaves. For both Tim and Gregg, the other host represents all the reasons they are unhappy with their lives, yet neither knows how to escape from the hole they’ve dug themselves. There is simply nothing else for them.
Another series might escalate this to the point where the two get in a fist fight on camera or something similarly explosive, but On Cinema has never taken it over the top. It is a realistic relationship built upon hate, where two passive-aggressive individuals sit in chairs, stare off into the distance, and mutter deep-cutting insults under their breath.
Let’s take a look at just a few times the Tim and Gregg conflict has come to a head, where any logical person would have put it to a stop. In the third episode, Tim has a mental breakdown on the show. He suddenly hands over hosting duties to Gregg, but Tim is unable to so much discuss the movies and he becomes a blubbering mess. Gregg attempts to keep things rolling as Tim literally sobs into his microphone and drowns all other audio out. At this point, if Gregg had any amount of self-respect, he would have had a serious discussion with Tim about the future of On Cinema, yet the two are back next week as if nothing happened.
In general, Gregg is usually disappointed that Tim handles the production so carelessly, right down to not being consistent over what the highest possible score is. Gregg also dislikes when Tim brings in personal opinions and drama on screen, even though after a while, that’s basically all the show is.
Tim is not the only one who frequently ruins the broadcast, though. Gregg is a stand-in for the typical, arrogant movie fan convinced his opinions are objective. During the Skyfall review, Tim gives the film four bags of popcorn but simply says he doesn’t adore the James Bond franchise, and Gregg is visibly upset. The atmosphere of the room quickly changes, Gregg becomes short with Tim, and he’s willing to get out all of this aggression because Tim does not love James Bond. In a later episode, Tim seems to ratchet up this hatred simply to get under Gregg’s skin, declaring Skyfall his worst movie of the year even though he previously gave it a favorable review.
Neither Tim nor Gregg knows what he’s doing, and each is bitter with the other for his incompetency. Even so, they continue to work together, continue to bicker, and continue to stare solemnly at the floor while their partner makes another cruel remark. It’s oddly fascinating to watch this all play out, and it feels so true to life, reflecting the way that real relationships continuously decay over many years.
Of course, the ultimate conflict between Tim and Gregg occurred during the production of Decker. During one season of On Cinema, Tim declares that he’s going to be directing and starring in his own action series called Decker in which he plays a secret agent. The show is terrible, and Gregg clearly knows it. During an episode released after Decker premieres, Tim notes he’s received lots of positive feedback, and Gregg says under his breath that he hasn’t said anything nice about it. In an absolutely genius move, Tim “interviews” Gregg in front of a green screen, only to use that footage to place Gregg into an episode of Decker without his permission. This quite honestly gave me the same sense of “Holy SHIT” that a season of Breaking Bad does.
This one moment perfectly encapsulates the brilliance of the series: It suggests that Tim has so few friends that he couldn’t get anyone else to help him, so he had to trick Gregg into doing so. Later, though, it also demonstrates how pathetic Gregg is. Though he’s initially pissed at Tim, as soon as Decker starts receiving praise from fans, Gregg flip flops and is now really into it. In fact, he throws a fit once Tim suggests his character might not return for Season 2.
Tim can’t produce Decker without Gregg because he has no one else. Gregg must embrace being in Decker because he has nothing else.
And it goes on and on and on throughout the series, which has now aired almost 70 episodes. But again the reason On Cinema is so hilarious is that it’s not just two guys fighting. They continue reconnecting with to each other, keeping up the pleasantries because they can’t afford not to. It’s exactly like a real, fucked up friendship consisting of two people causing one another pain, but neither one is willing to end it. These are two empty, sad men with nothing but this awful show, and I will never get sick of watching the disaster unfold.