Let’s get this out of the way right now: The ski mastery of reference in Crackle’s Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy is not of the winter sports variety. Instead, it’s jet skiing; and technically, it’s watercraft maneuvering, as “Jet Ski” is a specific personal watercraft brand. And this particular brand of minutiae is the type of thing you’ll find yourself stuck thinking about for far too long while and after watching Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy, like an earworm of the dumbest, most inconsequential order. (That’s on top of the musical earworm in the form of the opening credits, which you’re not going to want to skip both for ‘80s/’90s credits homage reasons and integral jokes of their own.) And for that reason alone, Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy just might be an absolute success for Crackle.
So instead of tackling the ski movie genre, Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy goes for the summer camp genre, which really isn’t all too different when you think about it for even a second. Either way, the gag is the same: The majority of this takes place on grass and, really, anywhere but the terrain you’d expect. Not because that’s necessary to the genre but because it’s honestly probably necessary to the budget. (There’s an A.I. plot in episode four, “Midterms,” that looks like it devours any possible budget this show has, as the rest of the series was surely made on the power of favors and friendships.) And because it’s pretty funny to watch the various ways the series stretches out having its Ski Master Academy staff and four cadets (played by Alison Rich, Samm Levine, Carl Tart, and Rizwan Manji, all with their own camp kid stereotypes) ever getting on their personal watercraft and hitting the lake. But why is any of this even happening in the first place? Because in this particular world, Rob Riggle is a watercraft action movie star.
Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy goes through all the camp classics: rival camp feuds, scrappy underdogs, training for the big event, campfire tales and horror stories, the wise-yet-weird groundskeeper, a camper being seduced by an A.I. hellbent on taking over the world. That last one isn’t necessarily a camp genre classic, but it’s certainly the type of thing that keeps you on your toes while watching the series. And the “scrappy underdogs” concept is even turned slightly on its head when you consider the series’ camp rivalry is between Riggle’s overbearing personal watercraft and NFL Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher’s unassuming canoes. So despite Riggle’s insistence throughout the show that Urlacher is “big timing” him and is the root of all the Ski Master Academy’s problems, the Ski Master Academy cadets are technically on the side typically relegated to the evil jocks in this particular scenario. The only thing that prevents that here is that character Riggle is too much of an idiot for his particular attempts at big timing Urlacher right back, and the rest of the Ski Master Academy are decent enough people—though not much brighter—to prevent them from also being the villains.
Besides the fact that it’s on Crackle, the biggest thing that might deter audiences from Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy is technically right there in the title. Despite his impressive resume, Rob Riggle is very much an acquired taste as a comedic actor. He’s a funny and charming presence, but that can get overshadowed by his propensity to go very big and very loud. This is why he can work so well in supporting roles, where his outbursts can be reined in—if it’s not what the project really calls for—and don’t overwhelm or overpower the comedy. (Surprisingly, NTSF:SD:SUV found a great way to keep him way below an 11, despite everything else on the show being at an 11.)
So going into this series, there’s very reasonable cause for concern that his leading, titular role will only amplify his already base level amplification. However, the series clearly realizes that expectation, and instead of relying on Riggle to carry the bulk of the episodes—especially as this narcissistic, oblivious version of himself—it chooses to focus more on the ensemble as soon as it gets to the Ski Master Academy. Actually, it does this with its press conference framing device as well, as even that has its own ensemble strengthening the story in the form of Riggle’s even more oblivious manager Gary (Paul Scheer) and the journalists (featuring Mary Lynn Rajskub and Owen Burke) trying to get a straight answer from Riggle about what went on at the Ski Master Academy. (A lot of bad, bad things.) And while Rob Riggle’s name is in the title, Eliza Coupe and Britt Baron are quite frankly the ones who carry the funniest parts of the show. It’s not just that they’re funny in what little time they have: The bulk of the series is dedicated to them and their storylines, with Baron having the “emotional” plot of the series (trying to follow in her stuntman father’s footsteps, to his disapproval) and Coupe as the secret hero and obvious badass of the whole piece, even if Riggle gets all the credit at the end.
In fact, Riggle has stated on the record (a concept the real Rob Riggle understands, even if his Ski Master alter ego does not) that he only has one true goal for this series:
“I just want to have some fun. I want to do comedy, I want to laugh, I want to hang out with funny people, and I want to have an enjoyable day of us trying to crack each other up. That’s all we did, and I think it came out all right. I’m pretty proud of it.”
Riggle is still shouting up a storm around everybody, but it’s not the crux of the series. The one exception is episode five, “Hog Hunt,” which features the most Riggle screentime of any episode in the season. It’s also the only episode where he has a writing credit (he does has a “story by” credit for the pilot, “Big Timed,” alongside his co-creators Bennett Webber and Chris Pizzi, though). It’s also an episode that pairs Coupe and Baron together as a small subplot, which is a change of pace from the rest of the series, where they tend to each anchor their own stories. The smartest decision the series makes in terms for Riggle’s character is in acknowledging how much he sucks—to the point that the one thing he was supposedly good at, ski mastery, is also proven false—but “Hog Hunt” stumbles in being aggressively about that… and Jamie-Lynn Sigler and David Arquette. It’s not like Riggle doesn’t bring something to the series as a whole as the character version of himself. The series points out moments of how his charm has helped him get by in life—which really comes in handy during that A.I. uprising—while also pointing out his inability to understand things like tax credits or books or the internet or how to be a functioning human being who’s held accountable for his actions. And as much as a mistaken name bit can fall flat as easy comedy, every time Riggle gets Brit Brit’s (Britt Baron) name wrong, it somehow gets even funnier, to the point you may even watch scenes specifically waiting for whatever new name he’ll have for her.
But perhaps to no surprise, the MVP of the series is unquestionably Eliza Coupe as Preggers, the quintessential ‘80s movie grizzled, dirtbag muscle—which is just as delightful and unglamorous as it sounds. She’s basically a redneck Mac from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, only effective in her badassery and with a passion for shirts with tassels. For the type of movies Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy riffs on, Preggers is not exactly the type of character you center the story around, but for the purposes of making this show work half as well as it does, it succeeds in going all in on her. But despite the character’s general lack of subtlety, the whiteboard for her “classroom” (the outside of her Airstream) is a treasure trove of background jokes in the series. (An early whiteboard gem is, “HOW TO BANG ON A SEA-DOO: 1) CAREFULLY.”) Preggers also provides the first truly excellent line and comedic moment of the season about five minutes into the pilot, upon meeting Dermot Mulroney (playing a character version of himself): “Isn’t that that dude that’s in that movie, that that girl, like—what is her name? I don’t like her.” It’s probably the most definitive line and moment of Dermot Mulroney’s career, and it’s just a blip in Eliza Coupe’s career as a comedic mastermind.
Even such an atypical episode as “Hog Hunt”—which is a bizarre mash-up of Indiana Jones, Predator and a zombie flick—is still necessary to the weird continuity of this weird story. Because while there is a lot of nonsense in the series, it’s also very well-plotted nonsense. That’s the thing: This is a serialized farce where every joke and glancing comment comes back in some way, shape or form. In the case of a possible second season, surely a reset button could be pushed; but part of the genuine enjoyability of this first season comes from the fact that a reset button can’t be pushed and these characters are just surrounded by bizarre occurrences and deaths. This is the type of series that could be one and done but is also made to continue on just to see how much it can stretch itself.
Because of the camp setting and decision to tackle that genre and its tropes—as well as the stacked comedic cast—it’s easy to immediately compare this to Wet Hot American Summer, as unfair as that is to the series. If anything, Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy has more in common with Strangers With Candy or Son of the Beach, albeit with a tamer sensibility than both and perhaps a smarter attempt than the latter. But the reason it’s specifically beneath the higher midrange of Abominable Pictures projects in this particular category is that it never has to hit any pinpoint accuracy on anything. For example, there’s a late-season hipster plot that works, but it’s also probably seven years too late. (The major exception to this topic of precision is the Preggers/Mulroney line, as well as another line about Mulroney towards the end of the pilot, specifically when it comes to people watching this show solely to see him.) But the show is still good—sometimes very good—with the potential to be great, which truly is Rob Riggle’s whole persona when you really think about it.
Once you get into the rhythms of Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy, it’s a breeze to get through and something that’s worth binge-watching on Crackle’s still iffy (in terms of actual functionality) streaming platform. By episode four, the show is confident enough to no longer ease the audience into its weirdness and expects them to simply be along for the ride. And like a lot of good, weird comedy, once that confidence and ease comes, it makes the earlier episodes look better in retrospect. This show knows what it’s doing and going for in the first couple of episodes, but it may not completely click until the third, and by the fourth, it expects the audience to fully get it.
There is an art to making a well-made and intelligent “dumb” comedy, which Rob Riggle and Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy genuinely understand. And a major key to that in something like this is to understand the genre you’re tackling. Childrens Hospital and Burning Love were (and might always be) the pinnacle for Abominable Pictures series in this particular vein, while NTSF:SD:SUV and Horrible People were arguably the high-to-low midrange, respectively—with Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy veering rather close to that high midrange. Filthy Preppy Teen$ and the Alison Brie-led Hot Sluts were honestly at the bottom, though the latter at least had a better handle on the general concept it was going for. The other difference between Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy and those other projects, however, is that those were short-form projects (except for Filthy Preppy Teen$), never hitting the 20-plus minute range. That this show is able to sustain the more standard sitcom length in eight solid episodes when it has the sensibilities of series half its length is a testament to the talent of Riggle and the entire cast and creative team behind the series.
Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy is a creative win for Crackle and its brand, but it’s still the niche kind of comedy that’s not going to strike big things for Crackle. It’s not Crackle’s version of Cobra Kai in terms of the reach it will get, even though it also builds off of a specific brand of nostalgia. Still, there is a montage set to vaguely Peter Cetera-sounding song during the course of this very series, and that counts for something.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.