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Sometimes the challenge of the high-concept idea, like the one in Netflix’s latest comedy Living With Yourself (basically Paul Rudd cloned — excellent!), lies in the execution.
Said challenge drags on Living With Yourself, an otherwise fun romp that matches Rudd with breakout Irish comic actress Aisling Bea (This Way Up). It first seems so effortless — two Paul Rudds! — that it’s hard to see the eventual missteps that come. And they do, starting oddly enough in the third episode, a perfect example of how running with a good idea often leads to tripping.
Air date: Oct 18, 2019
Rudd plays Miles Elliot, who until recently had been a successful advertising agency idea man, married to Bea’s Kate, an architect. The story is told in a series of flashbacks but when we first meet Miles and Kate, it’s clear their marriage is tired, they are tired, bored, sleepwalking through their current existence, which includes a long run of trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant.
Created and written by Timothy Greenberg (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart), the show features plenty of funny and clever material, including the notion that a move to the suburbs has coincided with a sapping of the central couple’s will to live (OK, fine, that’s a slight exaggeration). Rudd’s beaten-down ad man is struggling with ideas at his firm and looks constantly sleep-deprived, haggard and vacant. His co-worker Dan (Desmin Borges) effectively snatches away one of Miles’ big accounts and, celebrating his victory, reveals that his newfound confidence and zest has something (everything) to do with going to a spa in a strip mall for a little makeover.
It’s a testament to the beginning of Living With Yourself that it wastes no time jumping into the idea (in fact, it has one of the better cold opens of a TV series in a long, long time). Dan tells Miles that he has to be recommended (and Dan does recommend him) and the money is steep — $50,000, as it turns out — but that it’s worth it. Miles goes to the strip mall and goes all in (see, there’s no hesitation to get started on this journey of a show) and then, oops, a mistake happens. Miles is cloned — a better version of Rudd — but the “old” Miles lives and now there are two of them. (I’m conveniently not wanting to give away the cold open, a famous cameo or how the two Miles figure out what happened; the early stages of the show are delightful.)
At that point, in the first episode, Living With Yourself is clicking right along — a funny, creative take on a familiar idea with two excellent comic actors — and, in the Netlflix binge model, it ends and rolls right into the second (of eight) episodes, which is also funny and creative except for one slightly nagging conceptual problem. As both versions of Miles try to figure out how to live their lives — the clone is better at all things, which is convenient for the more tired Miles, who can stay home and finish his play while also judiciously keeping clone Miles from sleeping with Kate — the series presents two very different-looking Miles: The original Miles has flat, greasy-looking hair, glasses and is just schlubbier; clone Miles has the more Rudd-familiar hair that is pushed up and back stylishly, and he wears no glasses.
This choice is… odd. Because it may work for an audience that is passively viewing and looking for laughs but, uh, why wouldn’t Kate immediately see the difference in her two husbands (she’s not informed of the clone thing until later)? Not even a comment? They may both be Rudd, but they don’t look exactly the same and it comes off as either lazy or just something the co-directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Battle of the Sexes), couldn’t work around. (They get a hair closer to looking the same in later episodes, but by then the initial gaffe has happened.)
Once Kate finds out, it’s less of an issue, but shouldn’t Miles’ co-workers also see the difference and comment on it?
Unfortunately, the third and fourth episodes see bigger stumbling blocks for Living With Yourself — it rushes into more dramatic territory less successfully, becomes less funny and trips over its flash-forward and backward conceptual tricks. All of a sudden a simple idea becomes too complex to pull off and two full episodes suffer in the writing probably because the POV trick has necessitated too many changes that come too quickly (like introducing Alia Shawkat as Miles’ sister, plus putting Bea in the position of having to be appalled at the concept of two Miles — even though the clone is the clear upgrade — and finally leaning into a story arc where Miles the clone pines for Kate as his one true love).
It’s a lot. It’s messy. And it goes sideways quickly.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see a number of viewers tire of the formula by the end of the fourth episode, but fortunately Ginger Gonzaga shows up in the fifth (she’s a noted show-saver) as Meg, Kate’s fellow architect, which coincides with the show righting itself, at least temporarily.
The test for Living With Yourself is not the concept — cloning Paul Rudd! — but executing it with a story that keeps you interested long enough to finish the season. Some of the story arc decisions are dubious (it works better at being funny than being serious) and often it feels like the show needs to slow down and stretch for a bit, luxuriating in the ease of the idea. Instead, it races into scenarios that feel forced. There’s still a lot to like about the series, and maybe it will work better as it gets comfortable in its own skin.
Cast: Paul Rudd, Aisling Bea, Desmin Borges, Ginger Gonzaga, Rob Yang, Karen Pittman, Alia Shawkat
Created and written by: Timothy Greenberg
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)
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