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Shane Gillis expands his resume – but not his act – with Netflix’s worn-out ‘Tires’

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Shane Gillis enjoyed what can only be seen as a triumphant full-circle moment in February. After being hired and quickly dropped by “Saturday Night Live” in 2019 when racist and homophobic comments surfaced, the comic returned to host the show, reflecting how far his stand-up career had progressed in that span.

Gillis’ new series, “Tires,” follows a familiar route for rising comedians, migrating to a TV program built around their persona. Yet the worn-out nature of the Netflix show, which Gillis co-created, reflects how much the comedy world has changed since that practice’s heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s, when Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Brett Butler and Ray Romano made the transition to TV and significantly broadened their appeal in shows that attracted vast audiences.

“Tires,” by contrast, exhibits the narrow qualities of the streaming age, featuring Gillis in an independently produced series unlikely to bring many new admirers his way, but rather narrowly tailored to those already in his cheering section.

At six sitcom-length episodes (the shortest runs 18 minutes), “Tires” has a small-boned feel even before getting to how flat the jokes are. Indeed, Netflix bought the series along with a second Gillis stand-up special for the streaming service, which is probably the higher priority after his first, “Beautiful Dogs,” premiered last year.

In the series, Gillis plays the goofball cousin of Will (Steven Gerben), who’s running a struggling auto-repair shop owned by his father. “Tires” possesses the same proudly juvenile tone as Gillis’ act, whether that’s pounding beers at work or leering at women who participate in a promotional bikini car wash. It’s naughty, but not particularly edgy.

Like a lot of stand-ups, Gillis operates in his comfort zone by playing a version of himself, and he’s established a clear, potentially more widely marketable niche. Yet as a sign of how the comedy calculus has shifted, there’s less incentive to bother trying to expand his reach, as something like “Home Improvement” or “Everybody Loves Raymond” did, instead catering to a small subset of Netflix subscribers.

Netflix has positioned itself as a home for all kinds of comedy, including controversial material, presenting specials from Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais that triggered strong criticism. The service responded by expressing support for artistic expression, recognizing, as its statement of culture notes, “Not everyone will like – or agree with – everything on our service. … We program for a diversity of audiences and tastes; and we let viewers decide what’s appropriate for them.”

For Gillis, the last few months have appeared validating and vindicating, with “SNL” – and the mainstream platform the show still commands – as the cherry on top. During his monologue in February, he briefly joked about his hiring and firing, telling viewers who weren’t familiar with the history, “Please don’t Google that.”

Watching “Tires,” though, anybody only vaguely aware of Gillis might be tempted to do exactly that. Because at least in this worn-out vehicle, a casual observer might reasonably wonder why he merited such a fuss to begin with.

“Tires” premieres May 23 on Netflix.

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