A weekly travel and culture show with Jeff Goldblum as your guide?
The producers behind The World According to Jeff Goldblum were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
I had to get that out of my system.
The reality is that the series, originally developed at National Geographic and now premiering as part of the initial rollout of the Disney+ streaming service, actually stands as a rather perfect example of a seemingly thin and silly premise that has exactly enough substance to stand on its own well after the sense of gimmickry has passed.
It’s probably better that the project migrated away from National Geographic, where the brand carries with it certain expectations pertaining to substance. It isn’t that the show lacks in substance, it’s just that at the end of every half-hour episode, the feeling or takeaway is much more the amusement and pleasure of having spent that time with a quirky presence and host than having actually learned anything.
Let’s get back to the gimmick. Each each episode features the Jurassic Park and The Fly star exploring a single topic that interests him. The four episodes sent to critics focus on ice cream, denim, sneakers and tattoos, of all things.
There are commonalities to the structure of each episode. Most half-hours start by connecting the week’s theme to Goldblum’s childhood in Pittsburgh — recollections that, coupled with vintage black-and-white pictures, make it clear that the weird and wonderful actor we now celebrate has, to some degree, been the same guy since he was a kid. They all include trippy animated segments touching on the history of the topic, whether it’s the origins of the first introduction of indigo to the cotton weave that became denim or how vulcanized rubber opened the door for sneakers. They all find Goldblum going to some communal event associated with the topic, ranging from specialized conventions to the bustling Rose Bowl Flea Market.
Then things get more intimate as he visits with a luminary in the field, figures who can be as generally visible and recognizable as Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield talking about ice cream or as relatively obscure as explorer Brit Eaton, who searches abandoned mines and Western outposts for discarded vintage blue jeans, which apparently have astonishing collector value. And finally, Goldblum personalizes the topic, which can mean designing his own pair of ultra-expensive sneakers or collaborating with Salt & Straw mad scientist Tyler Malek on a Goldblum-specific flavor of ice cream.
It’s all tied together with a big-picture theme, explaining the primal tie between humanity — or at least Jeff Goldblum — and the week’s topic. Sometimes episodes can be funny or silly, because Goldblum isn’t here to tell you that sneakers are serious. But sometimes they can carry some weight, like his acknowledgment (only partial, but still there) of Jewish discomfort with tattoos, but also cultures in which tattoos are connected and woven into every facet of life.
As a purely educational experience, The World According to Jeff Goldblum is only a limited success. Goldblum is boundlessly interested, but he isn’t a reporter and seemingly hasn’t been fed an agenda of inquiries, so his interviews tend toward enthusiasm instead of interrogation, while the animated historical segments tend to stick to a two-sentence summary of information. It’s fairly easy to come away from an episode feeling like on a fact-by-fact level, you gleaned little.
That just happens not to be what the show is going for and maybe if it had stayed on Nat Geo, that would have been a more reasonable expectation.
It’s a show that’s really about the nature and expression of curiosity, and it’s driven by the personality of its star, an actor who has made skepticism and erudite enthusiasm into his calling card. If there’s any real takeaway, it’s that traveling the country with Goldblum, poking around in different corners of obsession and fandom, is every bit as amusing as you would expect it to be. If you would expect it to be amusing. If you wouldn’t expect it to be amusing, this is not a show you’ll be watching anyway.
[Note that episodes were watched and this review was written before a recent interview with Goldblum, featuring hot-water-generating comments about Woody Allen, was released. That may well reduce the number of people who would expect this to be amusing.]
Goldblum is a lover of hugs. He’s eager to break into song at any moment. He’s a free-associating wizard, prone to interrupting conversations to launch into familiar poems or Shakespearean monologues. He believes that respecting the Fourth Wall is a choice and not a rule. He’s a lover of vintage slang, turtlenecks and prancing through nature like a gangly sprite. He’s connected to his Jewishness and his Rust Belt roots and yet it’s easy to imagine that wherever Goldblum has been, he’s been endearingly and off-puttingly unique. If nervous energy were a viable power source, The World According to Jeff Goldblum could keep the lights on in a small town. You could tell me that Goldblum was high for the entirety of the series and I’d believe you. You could tell me that he is a time-traveler who got separated from his bebop ensemble in 1951 and is experiencing the modern world through unsullied eyes and I’d believe that, too.
He is, genuinely or performatively, presenting himself as exactly the person you’d hope or think he is and no matter where he goes, people are excited or bemused to be in the presence of his Jeff Goldblum-ness.
Through four episodes, that presence has been more than enough to keep me entertained and engaged. I didn’t know that I needed to watch Goldblum play basketball with street hoops legends in Los Angeles or to see his visceral reaction to the entrancing vibration of a tattoo needle. And maybe I didn’t “need” to, but it turns out I definitely wanted to and I look forward to seeing what other oddities become essentials when you’re seeing the world according to Jeff Goldblum.
Premieres: Tuesday (Disney+)