Saturday, October 3, 2015

Review, Reviewed

Andy Daly as Forrest MacNeil, consuming “an upsetting number of pancakes,” on Comedy Central's Review.

We critics are fundamentally damaged souls. Driven by a compulsive need to authoritatively analyze, categorize, and rate everything with which we come into contact, we’re chronically unable to enjoy life, and we find ourselves pushed ever further into isolation and embitterment by our profession.

That’s one possible interpretation of the message of Andy Daly’s pitch-black satire Review, which just concluded its second season on Comedy Central. Daly’s show is bleak, extremely cruel to its central character, and deeply skeptical of the profession of the critic. However, it can also be incredibly funny, and that by itself is almost enough to atone for everything else.

Review’s central focus is a show-within-the-show, also called Review, and its host, Forrest MacNeil, played by Andy Daly. As Forrest explains in the opening credits, the point of his show is not to review “food, books, or movies,” but rather the entire spectrum of human experience. “Life: it’s literally all we have,” he intones, “But is it any good?” As the two seasons of Review have progressed, the answer, at least in Forrest’s case, increasingly seems to be “No.” Nevertheless, he continues to doggedly field requests from viewers asking him to undergo various life experiences, from the banal to the bizarre, and rate them according to a five-star system.

The premise of Review, as well as the fact that it’s on Comedy Central, would seem to lend itself to a looser sketch format, à la Key & Peele or Inside Amy Schumer, which are two of that channel’s other recent hits. However, Review never lets us forget that Forrest doesn’t conduct his reviews in a vacuum. From the very first episode of Season 1, when he’s asked to review addiction and quickly degenerates into a raging coke fiend, Forrest finds that he can’t separate each experience that he’s reviewing from what happens to him, to his co-workers, or to his family. The show quickly begins taking a toll on his personal life, especially when a viewer asks him to review what it’s like to get a divorce (in between two separate reviews that ask him to investigate what it’s like to eat “an upsetting number of pancakes”).

Throughout two seasons, Forrest has inadvertently ruined or even ended the lives of those around him, and Review shows us the progressive, pernicious effects of this on him. It is, first and foremost, a showcase for Daly, who depicts Forrest as cheerfully oblivious, with only brief flickers of concern or doubt (at least initially) as to the wisdom of what he’s doing. It’s a fine line to walk: make Forrest too sympathetic and the show becomes a depressing drag; make him too unlikeable and it eliminates the pathos that’s necessary to give the humor its pronounced sting. For those moments when it seems that even Forrest recognizes the absurdity of his job, there’s his perpetually upbeat blonde co-host, A.J. Gibbs (Megan Stevenson), who blithely introduces and comments upon some of the most morally dubious things that the show’s viewers ask its host to do. It’s a limited role, but Stevenson’s deadpan reactions are a consistent source of laughs.

Andy Daly and Fred Willard on Review.

It doesn’t help Forrest that he’s urged on by his Mephistophelean producer, Grant (James Urbaniak, in a small but enjoyably dry performance), who constantly talks him out of passing on a given assignment or quitting the show altogether, all the while surreptitiously glancing at the cameraman to make sure he’s getting the scene from the best possible angle. Meanwhile, his ex-wife, Suzanne (Jessica St. Clair of USA Network’s amusing but slight Playing House, here playing it straight) watches with mounting disgust as her former husband sinks ever deeper into his monomaniacal dedication to the show.

Your enjoyment of Review will depend heavily on your appreciation of, and tolerance for, its wicked and sometimes downright vicious sense of humor. Laughing at Forrest’s misfortunes isn’t exactly the show’s raison d’etre, but it’s definitely not very sympathetic towards him, and Daly has no qualms about putting his character in some downright awful situations. However, he pulls off the trick of frequently making those situations very funny. For instance, there’s the episode in the first season in which Suzanne’s father (Fred Willard) accompanies Forrest on a review of what it’s like to go into outer space. The review ends disastrously, but in doing so it provides us with what’s one of the most simultaneously hilarious and horrifying images I’ve ever seen on television. In fact, many of Review’s best gags rely on this juxtaposition of hilarity and horror, such as a shootout in Season 2 that ends with a spectacular explosion, a sky-high body count, and a tanned-orange, freakishly muscular Forrest bellowing in rage and dismay.

Although the underlying bleakness of much of the humor makes this a show that I can’t recommend binging on all at once, it’s still one that I’ve found myself enjoying over two seasons. My major problem with the show stems not from its tone, but from the way it fudges the implications of its premise. The idea that Forrest can’t hope to neatly separate his reviews from the rest of his life is central to the show’s overarching point, and in many cases it leads to some of the its funnier moments, as experiences that Forrest has already summed up and rated prove to have lingering aftereffects that become apparent later in an episode or season. However, we never get much of a sense that the people around Forrest are aware of what he does for a living; it takes Suzanne all of Season 1 to finally catch on that her now-ex-husband has been destroying their lives for the sake of his unique job. At times, the family and friends whom Forrest has unintentionally tortured and alienated seem so obtuse about why he’s doing what he’s doing that I began to wonder if Daly’s hinting that the show is all taking place in Forrest’s head. Conceptually, the idea that Daly’s playing with and subverting the sketch comedy format is intriguing, but in practice it can lead to confusion.

So, is Review ultimately all about how awful critics are? Perhaps, like Forrest, I’m being willfully optimistic in spite of the evidence, but I think it’s more a specific indictment of our thumbs-up/thumbs-down culture, which encourages us to reduce the quality of a movie, TV show, or other work of entertainment to its score on Rotten Tomatoes. Review maintains that, while it’s not necessarily wrong to explore and analyze life’s varied experiences, it’s madness to try and reduce each of them to a five-star rating.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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