In June, the comedy collective Them Boxer Shorts, comprising Naveen Richard, Mani Prasad, Rahul Hota and Aravind Anil Kumar, uploaded five episodes from their new web series Better Life Foundation on their YouTube channel. The show uses a mockumentary format and, in the vein of Parks and Recreation and The Office, follows the rise, fall and rise of the eponymous non-governmental organisation.
The main players include Neil Menon (Richard), who sets up the organisation to help the poor (“The people of Dharavi shall defecate no more” he says.) Sumukhi Chawla (Sumukhi Suresh) is the straight-talking task master, Jerry Pinto (Utsav Chakraborty) a bumbling but lovable goofball, Anirban Sengupta (Kumar Varun) the DVD-pirating incompetent accountant, and Aditi Goyal (Sindhu Sreenivasa) the “unpaid volunteer” who is for all intents and purposes an intern.
Rounding out the cast and adding celebrity quotient is Kanan Gill’s Armaan Garewal, a playboy sentenced to work at the foundation for 500 hours after a drunk driving incident.
All the actors turn in charming performance and the humour, when there is any, is good-natured and smart.
The show makes interesting observations about startups and accurately lampoons the attitudes of misguided do-gooders. In episode three, Neil and Jerry decide to film a video of people urinating outside their office in Bhandup in Mumbai in a bid to gain viral fame. Anirban, who is annoyed by the suggestion that he should pretend to urinate in order to entice others to do so, lashes out in a tirade that people relieve themselves in public because they have no option, not because they love to.
Anirban and Jerry are the standout characters. Jerry’s character has a well-established back story (he’s a college dropout and drug addict) and loves to hatch incredulous schemes (what if they ran a temple instead of an NGO?). Anirban starts out being the comic relief and Varun pitches it perfectly, but as the series progresses, the character increasingly becomes a caricature.
The chief problem with A Better Life Foundation is that it takes its forbearers – Parks and Recreation and The Office – much too seriously.
The influence just doesn’t show up in the little things, such as the mockumentary setup and the use of the workplace for comedic purposes. Almost every frame draws on those television shows in one way or another, such as the focus on an object in the distance as characters are addressing the camera and a summary of the moral of the episode over a silent montage. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it doesn’t allow the stories to be sufficiently original and localised.
In some places, the show feels like a pale imitation. The hallmarks of The Office and Parks and Recreation include their legendary cold opens and rapid-fire dialogue. Unfortunately, Better Life Foundation is unable to transport these features into its-set up. Some jokes go on for far too long and are often explained, ruining the punchline.
At 24 minutes, the episodes feel too long. The show might have been better suited to a shorter format. That’s not too say the series doesn’t work. Every episode has at least one laugh-out loud moment. The first seasons of both The Office and Parks and Recreations were not very good. The style of the humour had not yet set in and the actors seemed unsure about their characters. There is a lot of potential in Better Life Foundation, and if the writing and characterisation become smarter, it could emulate the success of its predecessors.