Identity theft comedies — or any series with the central conceit that the main character is hiding an oh-so-big secret from the unsuspecting people around him — are a tricky business. The shows generally live and die by how well the writers can stretch the plausibility of that ruse across a season or more. And the creators of “Impastor,” premiering Wednesday night on TV Land, haven’t done themselves any favors with the added absurdity of the show’s particular con.
We’re quickly introduced to down-on-his-luck charmer Buddy Dobbs (a game, mugging Michael Rosenbaum) as he explains why his life is over. He’s in way over his head in debts to some less-than-savory types prone to wielding blunt objects. And when he tries to convince his bartender girlfriend to flee with him to the safety of Las Vegas, she dumps him, having reached the end of her patience. Buddy’s solution to this double dose of bad news is to swipe a bottle from the bar, get drunk and toss himself off a bridge in possibly the most cheerful suicide attempt committed to screen.
Of course, he doesn’t make it over the edge. Instead, a kind stranger pulls over and tries to help, insisting that God has a way of providing for everyone. That good Samaritan doesn’t get a chance to elaborate, as he goes over the edge instead. So Buddy steals the man’s car and identity and drives it to the new job the man was headed toward: pastor of a Lutheran church in a comically friendly small-town. Oh, and the now-deceased pastor left his last church after coming out as gay.
Despite these ridiculous obstacles and Buddy’s lack of experience as a con man, he decides to play the ruse out at least long enough to figure out the dead man’s password and drain his bank account. Of course complications ensue, not least of which his showing some actual aptitude for shepherding this wide-eyed flock. The fact that Buddy is able to make it so far into his shtick while only raising the suspicions of one town elder (the always welcome David Rasche) says a lot for what we’re supposed to think of the mental capacity of the townspeople.
Rosenbaum is certainly charming, and his affability goes a long way toward making “Impastor” work, but there’s just too much working against it — including its title. For the most part, the tone and presentation feels like something more likely to be found online as a web series, with the most obvious jokes you’d think of for the premise getting worked out of its system first.
The darkly comic moments of the show — like the real pastor plummets to his death, or the matter-of-fact delivery style of one of the not terribly sensitive detectives — show real promise. But the bits of writing with real teeth are crowded out by a generally broader and more winking comedy style and pacing that seems to be anticipating more laughter than the material could reasonably expect. You can practically see some of the cast counting to three in their heads after delivering a punch line.
For this series to click, the writers need to settle on a consistent tone, and then they need to make sure that their actors are aware of what it is. But with the limited-run cable series already on the air, that would probably take a miracle.