'Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein': TV Review

It makes no sense, but yes to that.
7/15/2019

'Stranger Things' star David Harbour does, uh, really stranger things in this weird, wonderfully offbeat Netflix special.

Sometimes when a big streaming entity like Netflix churns out content that can't always be distinguished from, say, network television, the whole TV universe seems utterly familiar, formless, monotonous. And then Netflix will do something because it can, because it probably doesn't think/worry about how such stuff will land and probably because one of its bigger stars asked if he could do it.

That something is Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein, a Netflix special — OK, maybe "special" — starring Stranger Things actor David Harbour about, well, his fictional father (played by Harbour), who made some TV plays that non-fictional Harbour found (certainly fictitiously) in his mother's attic while battling rats. If you're thinking, at this point, that this doesn't actually sound like a show anyone would make, hold on just one second. You may not know this, Harbour says, but he comes from a long line of actors (he doesn't — his parents, at least according to Wikipedia, were realtors) as he walks past a picture of his father (Harbour) and his grandfather (Harbour). Forty years ago, Harbour says, his father was involved in "the noble experiment of producing plays for television."

If, at this point, you're thinking — and you should be — "Wait, what is it this?" Harbour very seriously explains: "Recently I was confronted with my legacy while I was battling rats in my mother's attic," where he discovers lost footage from "Dad's old televised theatricals."

OK, now think of, say, several very silly British comedy sketch shows from yesteryear and contemplate the wording of, "I was confronted with my legacy," then "while I was battling rats in my mother's attic" and finally, "televised theatricals."

If, in that moment, you don't surmise that something ludicrous is about to unfold, you will be very lost in the next 25 minutes or so. (But let's be real — if the title Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein didn't make you tilt your head at an angle like a dog hearing a tin whistle, this is not for you.) It's probably not a stretch to say that 97 percent of Stranger Things fans tuning in to see what Jim Hopper is up to will be very, very confused.

Looking seriously into the camera, Harbour says: "We've been logging that footage, looking for insight. Insight into my father."

This might be a very good spot to wonder what it was like for Netflix execs to hear this pitch from Harbour, which amounts — in case you got lost — to a show about finding one of his father's old shows in the attic and having Harbour confront his own legacy by "logging that footage" for clues to his father. In short, this is a premise steeped in absurdism or originated out of a gigantic bong, one or the other.

But here's the thing: What follows is ridiculous, start to confounding finish, and yet it is so insanely funny that such a thing actually exists and will be available on Netflix, perhaps forever, that it comes off almost as performance art. That Ted Sarandos or Cindy Holland at Netflix said, "Yeah, sure, sounds good, let's do it" to this is, in 2019, like punk rock television.

At least in brilliant British sketch shows of the past you knew that you were actually watching a sketch show — you understood the framework if not always the content of some of the things that were being tried. Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein, is not even a mockumentary. It doesn't appear as a wink-wink sketch. It opens on Harbour, on a stage, talking into the camera about some of the silliness mentioned above, and then abruptly goes into that found footage, where Harbour's fictional father puts on a play about Frankenstein (Harbour), a young assistant (Alex Ozerov), a research institute that sends a representative who might invest (Kate Berlant), someone's dying mother (O-Lan Jones) and then real-life Harbour interviewing people who knew his fictitious father back then (Michael Lerner, Mary Woronov).

It is, of course, patently ridiculous, unfocused, sketchy, often funny, especially if you rewatch — and at roughly 30 minutes that's not too hard — but especially funny because it makes almost no sense at all and yet here it is, on Netflix, fully formed (and who knows, maybe another 30 minute episode next year?). 

Which is to say, random bits like Alfred Molina popping up as the most famous actor in the world and the host of The Actor's Trunk, which becomes a kind of sketch-within-a-sketch, are moments you roll with and maybe rewind to dissect later. Or maybe you don't. Maybe you stare at the TV and think, "What in the actual fuck is going on with this show?"

That's a very likely reaction. And something that Harbour and his fellow actors will probably very much appreciate.

My particular favorite moment is when the show brings up the theory of Chekhov's Gun, used so often in explaining planned action in a piece of fiction, and Harbour's character (yes, his fictional father) ruins the concept by stating that the introduction of the gun into a play means "It needs to go off later in the play." This linguistic mangling will be particularly funny for critics and probably just another weird moment to casual observers.

Part of the fun of Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein is just imagining people randomly clicking on this show without any knowledge (then again, having knowledge about it probably wouldn't change anything) and then just witnessing their reaction. Harbour and Netflix should have imagined another side special where hidden cameras just watch people watching this.

In the end, all that matters is that the rules of old television are broken. There is no form. Here, watch this thing we did, or not.

There's something oddly likeable about that.

Written by: John Levenstein
Directed by: Daniel Gray Longino
Cast: David Harbour, Kate Berlant, Alex Ozerov, Alfred Molina, Michael Lerner, Mary Woronov, Lidia Porto, Marion Van Cuyck, O-Lan Jones, Heather Lawless
Premieres: Tuesday (Netflix)