'For Heaven's Sake': TV Review

Mike Mildon and Jackson Rowe in FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE
Courtesy of CBS/Paramount+
Finds unexpected poignancy after a clumsy start.
3/4/2021

Comedians Mike Mildon and Jackson Rowe investigate a decades-old cold case in this Paramount+ docuseries that features Funny or Die among its producers.

The presence of Funny or Die and several of the creators of American Vandal among the production credits on For Heaven's Sake is the best and worst thing to happen to the Paramount+ docuseries.

In the positive column, it gives Paramount+ a promotable hook for what might otherwise be a difficult-to-summarize series. American Vandal was, after all, one of the odd miracles of recent years, a true crime documentary spoof that didn't just maintain the momentum of a seemingly one-joke premise; it somehow sustained its wink-and-nudge tone and committed genre rigor into a second season.

In the negative column, the thing that For Heaven's Sake is trying to be is not in any way the thing that American Vandal was, and probably the fastest way to be disappointed by For Heaven's Sake is to expect it to be American Vandal. The thing that For Heaven's Sake ultimately ends up becoming is surprisingly effective, but it requires making your way through a bumpy beginning that feels even bumpier when weighed down by almost any expectations at all.

The first difference between American Vandal and For Heaven's Sake is that For Heaven's Sake is real. Or it's mostly real. Or it seems mostly real? These things are hard to tell.

Creators and stars Mike Mildon and Jackson Rowe are, by general profession, comedians, but what they're doing in For Heaven's Sake isn't comedy. Mildon's family has an unresolved tragedy deep in its past. Back in the winter of 1934, Harold Heaven, Mike's great-great-great uncle, grabbed his rifle in the dead of night, opened the door of his Haliburton County, Ontario, cottage, walked out the door without closing it and was never seen again. A party of locals searched the woods and countless nearby lakes and they were unable to find the man, a bit of a troubled loner, or his body. An investigation cleared several suspects, and awkwardly suggested the case was a suicide.

Decades later, generations of Heavens continue to live or spend summers in cottage country and Harold has simply become a piece of family lore. So in the winter of 2019/2020, Mike and Jackson, boasting no training at all as detectives, decided to try to solve the crime. Over eight episodes, with the assistance of the local media and countless vaguely perplexed residents of Minden, Ontario, and surrounding towns, they follow a few theories, invent a few others and apply a few modern techniques to get answers that nobody in Mike's family believes them capable of finding.

Mike and Jackson's background, plus the Funny or Die logo in front of episodes, will lead you to go into For Heaven's Sake looking for comedy. And watching the first couple episodes — both the way they're edited and the way the stars are playing for the camera — you can tell that that's what they were going for as well. The episodes are awash in snide asides and gag responses from Mike's various family members; it's exactly what Paramount+ has edited into the trailer, and it's almost never funny. There's a bit involving a dog angrily barking at a drone that was maybe the only time I laughed in those early installments. Moreover, the attempt to adopt mockumentary rhythms for a real (or largely real [or giving the impression of being largely real]) documentary undermines the effort to build sincere interest in Harold Heaven's mystery.

I was annoyed by bloated 30-minute-plus episode running times and by the general lack of either dramatic or comedic momentum, and the only thing keeping me going was the fact that I went to summer camp in Haliburton County and many of the locations were sparking nostalgia. It's a very, very, very limited subset of Ontario-weaned TV critics who can find transitory amusement in a Kawartha Dairy cutaway or a reference to Kashagawigamog Lake.

Then something interesting happens. The creators and stars — Tim Johnson directed the series — become less interested in finding their exercise amusing and more invested in actually solving the case. Suddenly, good bits of humor slip in simply because Mike and Jackson are reasonably funny guys and they have a natural chemistry as friends and eventually as amateur gumshoes. Instead of forcing Harold Heaven's story and their approach to it to be something that it's not — namely, a semi-spoofable investigation treated with a formal wink and nudge — they find what's real at the family story's core.

Every family has lore, and after the passing of nearly 80 years, every family has pieces of history that have progressed into mythology — where recurring in-jokes have taken the place of understanding who the people involved were, what occurred and what the emotional consequences were. It might be your clan's version of an urban legend and you might chuckle about it over Thanksgiving dinners or it might be utterly serious, like the countless families whose attempts at genealogy reach abrupt stopping points stemming from a collective tragedy like slavery or the Holocaust.

The Heavens joke about Harold's disappearance now. They point to a bump in the forest and call it a grave or point to a lake and wonder what's beneath the surface, but Mike has grandparents of a generation that experienced that absence as a real thing. Plus, Harold isn't just "that guy that vanished." He was a real person and the more Mike and Jackson learn, the more they aren't just playing a game. They also come to realize that in a small town, investigating a presumptive murder means pointing fingers at other residents' grandparents and ancestors. That isn't a game either.

Maybe it's slightly spoiler-y to say that as For Heaven's Sake goes on, it becomes something poignant and worthy of curiosity, and that maybe Mike and Jackson become better detectives in some ways and much worse in others. They perform interrogations, enlist local businesses and cutting-edge technologies and their effort, as much as anything else, becomes endearing. If the first few episodes feel bloated, the last few feel like they could have been a full hour apiece.

So maybe it's spoiler-y to say that For Heaven's Sake becomes a different show as it goes along. But since the show it becomes is a good one, I don't think anybody will care.

Premieres Thursday, March 4, on Paramount+.