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As you may have read somewhere by now, it’s almost impossible to review Amazon’s new series Forever, starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. That’s because creators Alan Yang (Master of None, Parks and Recreation) and Matt Hubbard (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation) want to keep the true concept of the show a secret. And rightfully so — the story’s twists and revelations enhance the viewing experience, and it’s rare that a series ends up being something much different from what you expect at the outset.
So, no spoilers. Don’t worry.
The trouble with the list of things Yang and Hubbard don’t want spoiled — a list so long that somewhere Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is sending critics telepathic messages about his legendary spoiler demands not being so bad in retrospect — is that it makes it difficult to take a deep dive into the bigger issues tackled by Forever, which is a wonderful little series.
But there are ways to work around the spoilers while getting people excited enough to watch what turns out to be a surprisingly effective, very low-key and naturalistic comedy, if it’s a comedy at all. (It falls into the 30-minute space, but of course television is filled with series doing more dramatic than funny things in that world, as this one does.)
At the end of the first season’s eight episodes, there’s a faint suggestion that new and different things might be ahead for season two, which is just another way that Yang — who has already experimented with TV rule-breaking very effectively in Netflix’s Master of None — and Hubbard have gone off-script conceptually. Forever is the latest television series to follow the Louie mold, tossing aside preconceived notions of what can or can’t be done in terms of structure and story.
June (Rudolph) and Oscar (Armisen) are a longtime married couple who, in a lovely and smartly conceived directorial flourish by Yang, are shown subtly changing before our eyes. That is, their marriage is changing. But only one of them, June, really understands that. Forever is very much a story about a marriage, though it embraces so much about life’s existential questions, small and large, that it’s ultimately a meditation on the search for personal happiness and how to share space on the planet with people who can either help you with that or prove a hindrance.
There’s an intimacy between June and Oscar that clearly draws upon Rudolph and Armisen’s shared history as actors and friends. And individually, they’re well cast for their respective roles. Armisen’s Oscar is a nerdy dentist with some unsurprising quirks — like needing the dishwasher loaded a particular way. Because he’s hyperaware that expecting June to do it his way would be perceived as bossy, he instead redoes her dishwasher-loading work 10,000 times. Oscar is emotionally intuitive and sensitive to a fault. He doesn’t want to rock the boat. He just wants to be in the boat with June, as happy as can be. He’s a good cook. He’s very aware that June is a little bit out of his league and that he’s lucky to have her. He’s ultra-supportive. He’s very satisfied with their life, as he should be.
But of course Oscar is also a little dull. He’s a little too satisfied with how things are. Armisen’s skill here is that he’s all in — you never doubt that Oscar is totally in love with June and their life together. Though Armisen is primarily known for his comedic turns and legendary Portlandia moments, his nebbishy turn here is likable and guileless in its simplicity. And yes, he’s excellent at helping to fuel the funnier moments on Forever, which goes out of its way to be humorous as if by accident.
As June, Rudolph is the one whose face can’t lie — you know exactly when her boredom with marriage or with Oscar himself has taken its toll. You know when she’s unsatisfied — but not unhappy, which is a very different state of mind. You can see how she settles for less in little moments that begin to add up. The strength of Forever lies in those moments when both Rudolph and Armisen subtly convey life’s milder letdowns, as well as the emotional challenges of the matrimonial contract, without going to the next step, which is the all-too-familiar trope of two people hating each other and acting out.
In that context, Forever is different from, say, HBO’s Divorce. Beyond that, it’s completely different because of the things about its premise that can’t be mentioned here. But still, this marriage that’s being followed through the years is less obviously in trouble, which is the key to the series.
This is probably a good time to say that when Forever wants to be funny, it can be ragingly funny, especially over little things. That’s no surprise given that Hubbard and Yang worked on two of the funniest comedies that TV has ever birthed, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. But both Master of None and Forever are decidedly more interested in small moments and the intricacies of human nature than they are in setups and punchlines. Rudolph’s mastery of disdainful swearing is truly something every time it’s employed (particularly when June and Oscar go skiing and step outside the car into an insanely cold wind). Armisen’s skill at granular comedy, finding humor in little descriptions or facial expressions, has long been his calling card. Together they nail the parts of Forever meant to be both ridiculous and subtle.
But make no mistake — this series stands out mostly for its downbeat, melancholy moments. Sometimes those are the ones that also make it more of a work in progress, trying to find its tone. Forever wants to be weird in places, mysterious too — and some but not all of that works, because Yang and Hubbard are biting into some big themes within the limited time frame of eight half-hour episodes. But the series is never uninteresting. It has ambition on many fronts. And this first season, which also stars Catherine Keener and features several key cameos and intriguing supporting roles (notably Noah Robbins as a teenager the couple encounter and Kym Whitley as June’s best friend), manages its biggest task, which is to keep you a little off-guard and open to all possibilities as it forges ahead.
That’s a nice little feat (and marks yet another success for Amazon Prime Video, which is on quite the run lately). Forever is already a slice of something unique in a crowded TV landscape, with the allure of morphing into something bolder in future seasons. That’s a notable achievement for any series, let alone one that can’t be fully explained to those who are about to experience it.
Cast: Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen, Catherine Keener, Noah Robbins, Kym Whitley
Creator-writers: Alan Yang, Matt Hubbard
Director: Alan Yang
Premieres: Friday (Amazon Prime)