Heading into their third season, the creative brain trust behind EAGLEHEART could've easily opted for more of the absurd same and no one would've objected. What started as something of a goof on law enforcement procedurals had quickly evolved into a bizarre three-character ensemble that, for all its lunacy, somehow managed to be one of the most tightly structured comedies on television. Built around the venerable Chris Elliott as U.S. Marshal Chris Monsanto, the show also became a showcase for the insanely underrated Brett Gelman and Maria Thayer, who play Monsanto's crime-fighting cohorts Brett Mobley and Susie Wagner. Each self-contained episode was a leap into the blood-drenched unknown: sure, you could count on people dying in crazily elaborate ways, but, on the way there, someone might try raising an undigested mass of hair and gunk extracted from their stomach (aka a "beezor") as a child. That doesn't happen on CSI. To its detriment.
Given its eleven-minute-per-episode runtime and relatively short season order from Adult Swim, this is a model that could be sustained over multiple seasons. But the demented masterminds behind EAGLEHEART - director Jason Woliner and the writing team of Michael Koman and Andrew Weinberg - are trying something different with season three. It's called "Paradise Rising", and it's a serialized mystery centered on the unsolved murder (via woodchipper) of Mobley. Was Mobley lured by a comely, wig-wearing woodchipper into a fatal act of docking, or did his partner and best friend Monsanto have a hand in his demise? This is the question we'll be pondering all year as Monsanto and Susie go about investigating cocaine smuggling, aquarium heists and... I can't even begin to explain what happens in the second episode, but it involves a brilliant callback to Louis C.K.'s "Rotten Fruit Theater" on LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN. Ever wanted to see David Lynch's POLICE SQUAD? Here it is.
When I visited the set of EAGLEHEART at the Los Angeles Center Studios last July, the cast and crew were in the midst of a month-long shoot of the entire season, and somehow not sweating it at all. "The story is much more of an adventure this time, which is exciting," says Woliner, who can't stop giggling as he tries to explain, in the vaguest of terms, what they're up to. As he pulls up a sizzle reel on his laptop to give me a sense of the show's serial scope, Weinberg elaborates a little.
"We spent a lot of time wondering what was missing from it," he says. "We think people like it, but not a lot of people talk about it online. So what if there was a story people could get into and follow through the season?"
Woliner fires up the preview, which plays like a trailer for EAGLEHEART: THE MOTION PICTURE. Though the f/x are unfinished and the backlot trappings clearly visible, there's a confidence to the staging and framing that are rarely glimpsed in comfortably-budgeted studio comedies. Woliner may be working at a two-day-per-episode clip, but the show looks genuinely cinematic this year. It feels like something of a companion piece to MACGRUBER.
And yet Woliner warns against digesting this season in one whole viewing. "Theoretically you can watch them all together, but that might be like an acid trip. It'll be like someone punched you in the face for two hours because of how dense they are. It has to make sense in eleven-minute chunks and work week-to-week. If you do watch it together, it will be like a feature-length story with ten insane climaxes throughout."
"And ten new characters appearing and dying every ten minutes," adds Weinberg.
"It would never play as a normal movie," says Woliner. "It's still very episodic. But things do happen episode-to-episode that come into play by the end. If you pay attention at the beginning, there are things that will reward your attention by the end."
"Reward and punish," says Weinberg.
I get a brief bit of time to hang out on the set, where they're shooting what appears to be a jungle scene with Elliott and Thayer. I ask for specifics, but they're not forthcoming (which is just as well for someone who's a fan of the show). As I wait to talk to the actors, I look over to the adjacent set, which, though completely dark, is clearly identifiable as the U.S. Marshals' office. It is covered in blood.
I make note of this when Elliott and Thayer graciously take a break to chat with me. "We haven't held back on blood this season," says Elliott. "This is the most fun season I've had on EAGLEHEART. It's been fun to tell a bigger story and not feel that we have to rush because we're just doing this compressed thing. Our characters are the same, but it's a journey, as Maria likes to say. They change along the way."
Elliott and Thayer are continually called back to the set while I attempt to interview them, but they're always in good spirits when they return. I've done set visits like this before, and I can guarantee you that the talent is never thrilled to bullshit with a journalist in between multiple takes. And yet they keep coming back and bantering for a few minutes while I try to stop laughing long enough to ask questions.
Elliott is one of the great good-natured teasers. He's a bit like Bill Murray in this regard, seizing on every innocuous utterance and turning it against the speaker. He continually ribs Thayer for calling this season a "journey", and gives the absent Gelman a never-ending spate of shit simply because it's fun.
When Elliott gets dragged off for a close-up, I ask Thayer about Elliott's teasing demeanor, and she walks me over to the blood-splattered Marshals office. Without going into detail, she reveals that the scene required the cast to be completely drenched in the red stuff. "Chris had just done the blood cannon, so it was my turn," she says. "And right before I got hit, I heard Jason say, 'Take the velocity down a little for Maria.' I was like, "Hey! I can handle this!' And then I found out Chris was the one who told Jason to say that."
Finally, I get to talk to this season's man of mystery, Brett Gelman. He won't go into detail on the fate of his character (spoiler: the first episode opens with his funeral, so it doesn't look good for him early on), but he hints that death may not be the end. "I'm very much the Spock, or the Locke, of EAGLEHEART this season," he says. "It's so great that there is this emotional motivation in the midst of all the absurdity. I present a lot of twists and turns for everyone in this season that you would not expect my character to do."
Like everyone else, Gelman is very excited to unleash this season on viewers. "I think the first season was about introducing everyone to the world, and the insane story elements and side characters. I think they did a great job in the second season in developing our relationship beyond the story. Not in some deep way, but in a comedic context of how we actually operate with each other."
So what's the goal of this season?
"Now we're taking it to Crazy Town," says Gelman.
The train to Crazy Town leaves tonight at Midnight ET on Adult Swim. All aboard.