An eccentric entrepreneur's son comes to work for him in a comedy the Lowes co-created with Victor Fresco ('Santa Clarita Diet').
If you were, as I was, a big fan of ABC’s workplace satire Better Off Ted, it may feel slightly surprising at first that Netflix’s Unstable hails from the same creator — Victor Fresco, credited this time alongside stars Rob Lowe and John Owen Lowe.
Where Better Off Ted’s Veridian Dynamics stood as a paragon of corporate greed, Unstable’s Dragon is actively doing good for humanity while also making boatloads of money. The biotech firm’s founder and CEO, the improbably but impressively named Ellis Dragon (Rob Lowe), is no greedy stuffed suit but a charismatic genius entrepreneur who actually lives up to the sort of hype once lavished upon the likes of Elon Musk and Elizabeth Holmes. If Better Off Ted felt prescient in its cynicism toward business, Unstable’s sunny outlook can’t help but feel a little out of touch with the current disillusionment toward Big Tech and billionaires.
Unstable does, however, share with Better Off Ted its single most appealing quality — namely the fact that it’s very, very funny, thanks to a crackling combination of sharp writing, lovably eccentric characters and snappy comedic timing. It may not run deep enough to draw blood or wring tears. But that hardly seems to matter when it’s capable of delivering jokes so effective, I needed to pause the show more than once so I could stop laughing before I continued.
Not that you’d necessarily be able to glean its tone from the frustratingly generic title, which may as well be begging viewers to get it mixed up with Amazon’s very different Undone. Or from its premise, which sounds more in line with a dramedy like Apple TV+’s Shrinking. Unstable picks up with Ellis two months after the death of his wife of 30 years, when he’s still in so much grief that he has become what his loyal CFO Anna (Fleabag’s Sian Clifford) tactfully describes as “unpredictable” and what the show’s serif-font logo more candidly labels, well, unstable.
In practical terms, this means he’s essentially stopped working in favor of more eccentric activities, like sunbathing naked in his office, moonlighting as part of a landscaping crew and doing something unspeakable to make his board-mandated psychiatrist seemingly disappear without a trace. (Said shrink is played by Fred Armisen, to give you a hint of how wacky this subplot will turn out to be.) Concerned that Ellis’ bizarre behavior could jeopardize his role in the company, and thus the company itself, Anna enlists the help of his only child — Jackson (John Owen Lowe, Rob Lowe’s real-life son), a 28-year-old whose meager career as a flutist in New York stands as a direct rebuke to his dad’s overwhelming influence.
As a portrait of grief, Unstable is halfhearted. Although the Dragons’ recent loss serves the narrative purpose of giving Ellis a reason to act even more erratically than usual, and for father and son to recalibrate their loving but so far distant bond, the series is too buoyant to make Ellis’ spiral land with any real gravity — and too uninterested in Jackson’s feelings toward his mother to really explore them at all, beyond a subplot about Ellis’ concern that Jackson isn’t mourning properly. It’s more focused on the evolving dynamic between the two men, but here, too, the series plays things too light to land with any lasting emotional impact. (Nepo baby discourse lovers can look forward to comparing the relationship between the Dragons to that between the Lowes, though, I guess.)
And yet, it’s hard to mind that Unstable lacks emotional depth when its refusal to take itself too seriously is one of its chief pleasures. At a time when TV is cluttered with shows that straddle the line between dark comedy and heart-wrenching drama (sometimes to sublime effect), it’s a treat to watch a show that makes no bones about the fact that it’s an easy-breezy comedy, down to the 20-something-minute episode run times. Particularly when the show’s sense of humor is as well defined as it is, as early as it is. Where it takes some comedies a season or more to nail down a tone or get its cast to gel, Unstable is well on its way by the end of its first episode, and only becomes more itself over the course of the season’s next seven.
Key to its appeal is a willingness to not just be playful, but to look for unexpected places to squeeze in even more silliness. Unstable never has a character simply walk into a room where two other characters are talking when it could use the moment as an excuse for a bizarre sight gag involving an imperfect invisibility cloak. Love interests don’t just happen to be at bars drinking; they happen to be at bars drinking with a “bee society” of insect-obsessed oddballs. Malcolm (Aaron Branch), a sycophantic project manager, doesn’t stop at comparing Anna’s scheming mind to Aladdin’s Jafar — their exchange detours into the realization that there’s a guy at the office named Jeff R. who looks and acts just like Aladdin’s Jafar.
Such details make Unstable pop well beyond Lowe’s typically chipper performance (think Parks and Recreation’s Chris Traeger with more of Dean’s unflappable self-importance from The Grinder, and you’ve got the gist). Clifford is a particular standout, her clipped British pragmatism playing against the freewheeling zaniness surrounding her. But this is one of those rare casts where everyone seems to have chemistry and an enjoyably lived-in history with one another, whether it’s the unshakable loyalty between science weirdos Luna (Rachel Marsh) and Ruby (Emma Ferreira), or the underexplored not-quite-friendship between Malcolm, who’s Ellis’ No. 1 fan, and Jackson, Ellis’ No. 1 critic.
By the time everyone’s coming together in episode five for a fake surprise birthday party, that crackling energy has turned into something like sweetness. “Wait a minute, are we friends?” Ellis asks Anna as they watch their younger employees jerk awkwardly but gleefully to ’90s dance music. Grand declarations of feelings aren’t really the show’s style, and Unstable underplays the moment with a wry recap of their misadventures together and a quick clink of glasses. But it’s those touches of warmth that make this series feel like a fun place to hang out, enjoy some big laughs and forget about trying too hard to make sense of it all.