'Flaked': TV Review

Benjamin Cohen/Netflix
Arrested creative development.

Don't expect a live-action 'BoJack Horseman' from Will Arnett's meandering Netflix semi-comedy.

After the fourth season of the beloved Arrested Development and his vocal work on the tremendous BoJack Horseman, Will Arnett is part of the Netflix family. And the thing with family is that sometimes you're gonna give somebody a ride to the airport or loan them money or sit through vacation slides, because they're family and you love them.

If you're Netflix and Will Arnett comes to you with a series idea and it's just an eight-episode comedy series that he co-created and that can be shot quickly on location in Los Angeles with no special effects, no costly stars and a couple big names attached creatively for credibility, why would you say no? He's family, you have the wealth of Croesus and whatever gets produced can just be scheduled for a week between two of your biggest series returns. There's no possible harm.

And if you're Will Arnett, who wrote all eight episodes of the new series Flaked with Mark Chappell, this is a chance to flex new producing and storytelling muscles, while writing yourself the sort of acting role you must not think Hollywood has given you, the chance to play a more grounded, feeling, pained character than other live-action opportunities you might be afforded.

In short, there are very good reasons why Will Arnett would have wanted to make Flaked and why Netflix would have made it possible.

The reasons for viewers to watch are less compelling.

Maybe after Togetherness, Transparent and Netflix's own Love, you have a voracious appetite for insular portraits of wildly diverse Los Angeles' predominantly white neighborhood enclaves and you feel like the Westside has, thus far, been woefully overlooked. Maybe you enjoy a steady stream of jokes about the geographic boundaries between Venice and Mar Vista and Marina Del Rey and wish more sitcoms had punchlines about the different mindsets on each side of Lincoln Boulevard. Maybe awareness of the importance of kombucha and industrial art and paddle tennis in Venice culture will produce in-the-know giggles as they're repeatedly mentioned, generally with respect, onscreen. And why should Hollywood types have all the fun when it comes to TV shows about Los Angeles? In Flaked, a couple of characters are actors or aspiring comics, but most are roustabouts or waiters or baristas with nothing interesting to do and shouldn't their stories be told?

To get the basics out of the way, Flaked stars Arnett as Chip. A recovering alcoholic, Chip says several times, "I came to Venice by accident ... let me rephrase that — I came to Venice because of an accident." See, Chip killed a man and turned his life around enough that he's now the manager of a furniture store and something of an icon in the Venice AA community. "You've got a serious platitude problem," Chip's buddy Dennis (David Sullivan) tells him, but everywhere Chip goes in Venice, bikini babes coo his name and look to him for glum, empty wisdom. Chip has a problem with swooping in on girls Dennis digs, including Chip's latest flame Kara (Lina Esco), an indie musician. Dennis' latest unrequited flame is London (Ruth Kearney), the new waitress at everybody's favorite restaurant in Venice. Dennis has a crush, but the sparks between London and Chip are evident, because everybody keeps saying they are. Triangulation ensues. [It's not in any way like a live-action BoJack, though that seemed to be everybody's reaction to the trailer.]

Flaked stumbles along a line between theatricality and parody so thin I wouldn't be surprised if somebody tried to argue that this Mitch Hurwitz-produced series really was being delivered with tongue in cheek. In all of these L.A. neighborhood rom-drams, a running time of under 30 minutes dictates we call them comedies more than the tone necessarily does, so Flaked episodes almost all run just a notch over 30 minutes and offer almost no laughs at all, daring you to change your classifications. The neighborhoods and the people who live there tend to be symbiotic, so you can't make it through an episode of Flaked without being explicitly told things about Chip and his relationship with Venice, about how both the man and his community are in states of flux. It's all a metaphor.

And boy oh boy, if you miss that Chip's job is also a metaphor, ample time is spent explaining that he makes stools, but he doesn't really sell any, and that his stools are three-legged because that's "the minimum needed to stand up. Anything else would just be superfluous." Everybody in Flaked is doing things for purposes that relate to metaphor or irony, not to living. When he isn't selling stools, Chip is a self-help guru who can't help himself. Dennis is a wine consultant, but as a recovering alcoholic, he can't drink himself. There are at least three jokes about a coffee shop called Free Coffee, where the coffee is free trade, but costs money, except for when it's given away gratis. Their buddy Cooler (George Basil) dreams of doing stand-up but declares, "I don't tell jokes. That's my thing!" Oh, and Cooler's a Venice community activist, but he lives in Mar Vista.

Oh, and there are a couple of love triangles at work, but the characters have been written only in terms of metaphor and irony, so nobody has any chemistry, which is probably also an irony, though it's less likely to be intentional.

Or maybe it is intentional? Flaked feels primarily like a writing exercise for Arnett and Chappell. The characters all have trouble telling the truth to each other or themselves, so they're all harboring secrets and those secrets are what's likely to keep viewers curious, even though a straightforward conversation in five minutes of the pilot could tell us everything we need to know. The characters are needlessly evasive, so the writers are needlessly evasive. You understand the metaphors, relentlessly repeated as they are, but very literal things like, "Where the heck do these people live and how are any of them affording to live?" are confusing.

The confusion suggests that maybe Flaked isn't a parody, but an existential, comedy-free mystery. That contention could be defended by an abrupt narrative change-of-pace in the sixth of eight episodes, in which Flaked becomes ... well ... something else. A thriller? A twist-driven whodunit? A Frank Capra-esque message drama about sparing unspoiled urban space from evil commercial development? The whiplash of those last few episodes took me from irked at the emptiness of it all to annoyed by the undermining of nearly every bit of what came before, especially its seemingly earnest commitment to the recovery process.

Arnett's character is rendered particularly inconsistent, but it's still a solid performance if you interpret Chip as being fundamentally dishonest, smarmy, hollow, but maybe good at heart. I really can't say if the series intended for those first three attributes to stand out. Chip is seriously damaged and Arnett's acting doesn't shy from that, but Arnett's writing deflects by either having characters irresistibly drawn to Chip or people constantly apologize for him.

The supporting characters are thin. Sullivan mostly plays Dennis as the less interesting sidekick he is, but one episode featuring Kirstie Alley as his mom really works. If there are funny parts in Flaked, they come from Basil, playing a character who would be cartoonish, except that if you've spent even an afternoon in Venice, you know he's not exaggerated at all. The female leads are both criminally underwritten, but both exhibit enough superficial charm that it's easier to understand why people are captivated by them than why they're captivated by Chip. Heather Graham, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Robert Wisdom add some recognizability, but also feel actorly in ways most of the show's performances do not.

Venice, probably the second lead behind Arnett, is nicely but sparsely depicted. There's a clear effort to avoid the crowded, touristy parts of the neighborhood, so there's no loitering with the drum circles on the beach or standing in line for the food trucks perched on Abbot Kinney Boulevard and the canal bridges are kept to a minimum. The result is that it's both a more authentic, but also oddly underpopulated vision of the neighborhood. Credit (or blame) to Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, who directed the beginning and ending of the series.

The eight episodes of Flaked ended at a point that felt conclusive, insofar as I no longer needed to follow the characters and don't care about their life mysteries left unanswered. I understand why Netflix and Arnett wanted to make the series, and I understand why I won't need to watch a second season.

Cast: Will Arnett, Ruth Kearney, David Sullivan, Lina Esco, George Basil
Creators: Will Arnett, Mark Chappell
Premieres: Friday, March 11 (Netflix)

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