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Singing (and a Few Other Things) for Their Supper


Manufacturing serendipity is a tricky business, as the makers of any number of whimsical, failed television series can tell you. Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie managed it better than most in the first 12-episode season of Flight of the Conchords on HBO last year. Season 2 began on Sunday (the first episode is already available at hbo.com), and the off-kilter charm is still there, though some strain is beginning to show.


This fish-out-of-water sitcom about a pair of guileless New Zealand musicians bumbling through life in New York has a formula and sticks to it: stretches of surrealist, deadpan comedy, so minimal as to be barely there, alternate with comparatively elaborate, Michel Gondry-style fantastical musical numbers.


The Seinfeld-like plots are spun from air: Bret buys a mug for $2.79 and plunges the duo into such dire economic straits that Jemaine takes up prostitution, complete with a Midnight Cowboy hotel room parody. (I have a few rules. One, no laughing, especially during, O.K.? Put's me off.) During a performance in a library, Bret ad-libs insults to some prominent rappers, then forms his own gang - which includes the middle-aged Asian proprietors of the Internet cafe downstairs - in case Snoop Dogg or Missy Elliott comes looking for him.


The jokes that hang from these slender frames are still sneaky-funny, though perhaps a slightly higher percentage fall flat. When an agent tells the duo his e-mail address, Bret asks, Underscore is your middle name?


When they finish their first real paying job and are asked for their green cards, this exchange ensues:


Jemaine: Green cards?


Executive: You do have a green card, right?


Jemaine: Is it just a bit of card?


Bret: It's just a greenish card?


Well, you have to be there. And as always, the New Zealand accents make everything funnier.


The real issue this season will be the quality of the songs. The first season used up all of the pair's existing material, and the new songs in the first three shows are uneven. A West Side Story parody in the gang episode is simply tedious.


The pair still manage at least one inspired number per episode, though. The highlight of the season premiere is the non sequitur song that ends it, explaining why rain is suddenly falling: There are angels doing it in the clouds ...


Mr. Clement and Mr. McKenzie pull off a neat trick in their show: they play a pair of clueless losers set loose in New York while simultaneously communicating the fact that in real life they're hipster studs.


You have to wonder whether anyone outside of downtown Manhattan; Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and certain neighborhoods of Los Angeles cares, but since this is HBO, that's the audience that will keep Flight of the Conchords on the air.


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