You’re forgiven for thinking a sitcom about Craig Robinson and Claudia O’Doherty hunting snakes in a swamp would be fundamentally silly. That’s the prime of Killing Ita new comedy on Peacock created by Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creator Dan Goor and Brooklyn and 30 Rock producer Luke Del Tredici. Based on the real life Florida Python Challenge, a state-sponsored snake hunt geared to reduce the ecological impact of pythons on the Everglades, Killing It‘s pedigree, cast and outlandish concept make it seem like the kind of sitcom you’d watch to unwind from the stress of daily life and forget about the real problems of the world for a half-hour or so. And then, less than three minutes into the first episode, a surprising bit of violence shatters those expectations, establishing that this is going to be a show that’s serious about, loss and struggle, even trauma, as it remains a comedy first and foremost.
As the show’s lead and central force, it’s Robinson’s job to preserve that crucial balance between drama and comedy. If you only know him from The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nineor the Hot Tub Time Machine movies (yep, there’s more than one of ’em), you might be surprised at how capably Robinson handles both tones. As a down-on-his-luck working stiff with unfulfilled big dreams who enters the challenge in hopes of winning the $20000 grand prize, he remains sympathetic without turning into a sad sack, retaining his drive and moral compass even as the whole world seems to conspire against him at every turn. It might be Robinson’s best role yet—and he seems to realize that.
“I relish doing dramatic parts,” Robinson told Paste at a recent junket for the show. “I love going that route. You’ve got to show some more vulnerability, which is a challenge. I love the tunes [Killing It] takes on and being able to do that dance between comedy and drama.”
Despite the premise, there’s not a lot of actual snake hunting in Killing It. The contest is a backdrop for an exploration of America’s economic disparity, how society is built to further enrich the wealthy and deprive the poor, and how the gulf between classes has steadily widened over the last several decades. It’s a sitcom with a message, although not one that overpowers the actual comedy. It might make you feel bad, but at least you’ll laugh along the way.
That was a major reason Robinson got behind the show when Goor and Del Tredici pitched it to him. “Dan and Luke went off and came back with three ideas,” Robinson said. “One of them was Killing It. It wasn’t named yet; it was just a story about hunting pythons, because the Everglades are overrun with them. It just jumped out at me.
“It’s the American dream, right? The theme of the show,” Robinson continued. “They wanted to mirror society.”
To emphasize that point, Killing It is set in 2016, with Trump’s eventual rise to the casting a shadow over the whole series. All of its core characters have their own hustle. As Robinson’s character Craig struggles to raise enough cash to start his own business, his snake-hunting partner Jillian (played by O’Doherty) is mired in the gig economy, Ubering and Taskrabbiting while living in the billboard she tows behind her station wagon. Craig’s brother, Isaiah (Rell Battle), has no problem breaking the law to get ahead, and eventually catches on as a fixer for the wealth-obsessed motivational speaker and conman Rodney LaMonca (played by an incredible Tim Heidecker, in a very Tim Heidecker role). Brock (Scott MacArthur), their rival in the python hunt, is an unemployed middle-aged man with a collapsing marriage trying to make it as a hunting and survival YouTuber. Like the characters of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and 30 Rock, they all have a cartoonish aspect about them at first, but they’re also quickly fleshed out into believable people, each one dealing with poverty, shame, and trauma in their own way. And yes, sometimes that involves killing giant snakes.
Although Killing It‘s examination of America’s economic turmoil hinges on the slaughter of abandoned household pets who are destroying Florida’s organized ecosystem, Robinson himself wears he could never hurt a snake. “I have never killed a snake in real life, nor would I,” he said. “Turns out I love snakes”. I was in Australia a few years ago, went to an animal sanctuary and was holding up snakes, and realized snakes didn’t mean any harm. I’ve been lied to by the Bible and Indiana Jones. Snakes are right with me.”
Hunting dangerous snakes is also a potent summation of the lengths many Americans have to go to simply to survive today. And as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s entirely real, and has been held annually in Florida since 2013. Winning the Florida Python Challenge can bring life-changing money to people in need, and this show realizes how messed up it is that a state would rather incentivize civilians to perform dangerous work in a swamp than provide an appropriate social safety net or any kind of leg up for people who want to better their financial station. It’s all part of a system geared to turning us into replaceable cogs doing the work nobody really wants to do, so that the richest of the rich can continue amassing wealth undisturbed. Killing It‘s name has a few different meanings, but maybe what’s being killed is the so-called “American dream” itself.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.