10:57am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: 'Review' is the Best Show You're Not Watching
Due to variable episode lengths and premiere dates, the mantle of the Best Show Currently on Television gets passed around every few weeks throughout the year. With Fargo and The Leftovers and The Knick and The Returned slated for October premieres, things are about to get competitive for fall supremacy.
Since July, though, the [entirely subjective] Best Show Currently on Television crown has been held by Comedy Central's Review, fighting off competition from the likes of Rectify, Hannibal and probably some stuff on Netflix that doesn't really count because it's either always on television or never on television, depending on your perspective.
Review finished its second season on Thursday (Oct. 1) night on a high note as it awaits word on its future.
(There are obviously spoilers here, but they're vague spoilers. If you haven't watched Review, you really need to.)
Writer-star Andy Daly and regular director Jeffrey Blitz's take on an Australian format had an under-the-radar premiere last spring, starting with a deceptively cutesy premise — Forrest MacNeil (Daly) is the star of a TV show in which he reviews life experiences like stealing, attending prom and recording a sex tape — and darkening and deepening it into a lacerating look at the dangers of interacting with the world second-hand and prioritizing superficial evaluation over actual life. The first season, which spent a long time in the can and was also in renewal limbo long after its finale, had a marvelous arc, from an innocuous beginning to the dark misery of the collapse of Forrest's marriage as a direct result of life reviews he had been assigned seemingly at random.
As the first season ended, the consequences of Forrest's job and his commitment to it had been laid bare and plenty of unanswerable questions about reality TV, cultural criticism and our swipe-left/swipe-right, Yelp-ified society had been raised. That seemed satisfying enough, and it was hard to fathom how Review could push things any further.
The second season turned out to be every bit as strong and far darker. Carrying the emotional momentum from the last finale, Review didn't even bother luring in the audience — a sadly minuscule audience — with lighter installments, though Glory Hole and Curing Homosexuality offered reviewing opportunities that were cringe-worthy more than excruciating. After destroying his relationship with wife Suzanne (valuable guest star and straight-woman Jessica St. Clair) last season, Forrest now found himself straining his ties with his son, his increasingly visible and put-upon father (Max Gail) and several new potential loves, including Mrs. Greenfield (Lennon Parham), whose three-episode arc was a portrait in tragedy.
If Forrest's happiness and stability were all that the first season jeopardized, the second season targeted his body, his sanity and then, increasingly, his life.
It's hard to explain how a show in which the main character, through self-inflicted stubbornness, starts a cult ending in massacre, burns his dad's house down, catfishes his ex into a romance with a philandering athlete and eventually commits murder could possibly remain funny, but Daly's performance and Blitz's direction generated a manic tone that expertly balanced tension and incredulous hilarity. Review went places that were harrowing, and Daly went those places with zeal.
As Forrest played Job to the divine whims of his job and the potentially demonic presence of producer Grant (James Urbaniak), his faith in the process never wavered and the clash of boundless optimism and increased sadness produced a tone without parallel even in this age of marvelously melancholy, genre-straddling comedies like BoJack Horseman, Transparent, Shameless, Orange Is the New Black, The Last Man on Earth and, if you want to go back a bit, to HBO's short-lived Enlightened, which may be my favorite comparison in terms of main characters snatching irrational positivity from the maw of modern life's depression.
Thursday's Review finale challenged the entire format, as Forrest, out on bail for murder and still in mourning after a horrifying death in the last episode, was asked what it was like to believe in a conspiracy theory. He appropriately began to wonder if Grant was skewing the randomness of his review assignments and if his producer was out to murder him. Fans of the show have wondered about Grant's intentions for two years, while also debating the very nature of Forrest's show, Forrest's visibility in the outside world and all manner of bigger picture dilemmas. Who's watching this thing? What's its budget and its indemnity against lawsuits? What moves the needle in terms of ratings?
Grant protested, "People are constantly asking you to review dangerous things, because they already know what the easy stuff is like. They can do that themselves."
That sounds plausible. Do we believe it? Does that put the viewer at the heart of the real conspiracy? When we watch a Survivor or Big Brother, how much are we putting real people, people who we come to view as fictional characters, into unpleasant circumstances as a placebo for experiencing those things ourselves?
Is there a line between staging moments for televisual advantage and staging moments to Forrest's disadvantage? And why the heck would Grant ever have wanted that last confrontation to take place on a bridge over roaring rapids?
For the second straight season, we were left with Forrest's preternaturally chipper co-host A.J. Gibbs (the magnificent Megan Stevenson) alone on-camera and guessing at Forrest's rating in lieu of her missing co-host and producer. But if Grant's not there, who's producing the show? And what is A.J.'s agenda here? How does she remain so giddy in the midst of Forrest's descent? Why was she so excited about the veto added to the show this season? Why was she so eager to assist Forrest in reviewing Getting Kicked in the Balls? I simultaneously don't want to destroy the mystique of A.J. Gibbs and yet need to learn more about her.
We're still a couple months from me needing to decide where Review will fit into my end-of-the-year top 10, but it will surely be high. It also remains to be seen if a fanatical, but tiny, fan base is enough to earn the show a third season. Just as I didn't know where Review could go after its last finale, I don't know how this one can be topped, but Daly and Blitz and company have proven that things can always get worse for Forrest MacNeil and better for viewers.