Thursday, November 9, 2017

Dreaming the Present: CBS’s Me, Myself & I

 Bobby Moynihan and Jaleel White in CBS's Me, Myself & I.

Optimism comes in many forms. In a person, it can describe a kind of unshakable belief, despite evidence to the contrary, that everything will work out for the best. On these terms, pessimism is the obverse: a similarly stubborn confidence that everything will, inevitably, fall apart. Both postures take advantage of the openness of the future, a time when this moment – whatever it happens to be – can (and will) be otherwise. Hope and hopelessness also come in comparable flavours, but being “hopeful” on these terms can be disappointing. In short, once tomorrow comes and shows itself, you can regret holding on to that hope for as long as you did (the way you can regret a financial investment that never pays off). Hope – understood as awaiting a future that you are certain will come – can, in short, be mistaken. That future may, in fact, never come, and that hope can thereby flip, quite naturally, to despair.

But hope for the future, as powerful as that can be, is not the only form of hope. There is also what Walter Benjamin called “hopeless hope” – a way of being in time that is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, because it is a kind of hope detached from any wish and so awaits neither confirmation nor disappointment. (French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas approaches something similar when he writes of “hope for the present” which, rather than deferring the present moment for the future, welcomes futurity and the fullness of possibility into the present.) These two forms of hope can, of course, be confused with one another, even for the one who holds them. And so we reach Alex Riley, the three-time protagonist of CBS’s now ill-fated comedy Me, Myself & I.

Last week, CBS announced it would be pulling the low-rated freshman sitcom Me, Myself & I from their schedule after only six episodes. (The rest of its 13-episode season has been filmed and will air at some unnamed later date, but the network’s announcement clearly makes it one of the first casualties of the new fall season.) With an ambitious narrative structure, heart-warming storylines and a strong multi-generational cast, Me, Myself & I stood out from the pack this season, and I will miss it.

Alkoya Brunson, Christopher Paul Richards andJack Dylan Grazer in Me, Myself & I.

Created by Dan Kopelman, who worked as a writer and producer on Malcolm in the Middle and served as executive producer on the buoyantly risk-taking and equally low-rated GalavantMe, Myself & I is set simultaneously in three moments in the life of a single character, Alex Riley – borrowing its narrative conceit from last season’s hit NBC drama This Is Us, and adding a dash of the spirit of How I Met Your Mother. In 1991, Alex Riley (age 14) is played by young actor Jack Dylan Grazer (It); in 2017, Riley (age 40) by Saturday Night Live alum Bobby Moynihan; in 2042, Riley (age 65) by sitcom veteran (and current cast member of The Librarians ) John Larroquette. At each stage, Alex is going through a life crisis of sorts. With his mother’s recent engagement, young Alex has just been dragged across the country, away from his beloved Chicago to L.A., to move in with a future stepfather and stepbrother. Middle-aged Alex is suffering from a midlife loss of faith in himself – recently divorced, struggling professionally as an inventor and suddenly sole caretaker of his 11-year-old daughter Abby. 65-year-old Alex survives a heart attack and steps into retirement, and is trying to find himself again after decades of professional success.

With little more than 7 minutes of story for each time period, Kopelman gave himself and the show’s writers a difficult task. For the six episodes that have aired, they were no A/B storylines – just three stories or moments held together by a broad theme. It’s a structure familiar to long-time viewers of Modern Family, although in an episode of Me, Myself, & I, instead of telling parallel stories across one diverse family, the stories all revolve around a single character. To give viewers some ground to stand on between the shifting eras, certain aspects remain stable, e.g., its L.A. setting, Alex’s best friend Darryl (played in middle age by Jaleel White), his obsessive love for Star Wars and Michael Jordan, his connection with his stepfather (Brian Unger). But it’s the differences across the three incarnations of Alex that made watching Me, Myself & I regularly fascinating – and which prompted the reflections that opened this piece.

Alex, at every age, is a dreamer. Grazer’s young Alex has the untested energy of an adolescent – for him, the world is all light and possibility, and he is waiting with baited breath for the big idea he’s sure he has within him. Moynihan’s Alex, beaten down by circumstance, is tired and hangs on to his dreams of changing the world like a kind of life preserver. With Larroquette’s Alex, we get a dreamer living past the accomplishment of everything his younger self could have possibly wished for, and still somehow dreaming all the more fervently. (Alex’s future success is almost staged like an ad absurdum: not only have his inventions made him a billionaire, but his grown daughter Abby is currently the general manager of his beloved Chicago Bulls. Add to that the surreal casting of Larroquette, and the show also asks us to believe Alex has at some point in the 25 years from 2017 to 2042 somehow grown six inches in height to boot! A life of Riley, indeed.)

Sharon Lawrence and John Larroquette in Me, Myself & I.

You might expect that this restrained narrative framework – after all, we know it will all work out for Alex in the end – would undercut any possible drama in the earlier storylines, but the effect is precisely the reverse. When young Alex enters his first invention competition, we already know that, win or lose, he will hold on to his dream of being an inventor for decades to come. As the 40-year-old Alex grows into his role as a father, we already know his relation with his daughter will ultimately flourish. The result? The drama rightly shifts from plot to character – revealing that what matters is not what happens to Alex but how he experiences it, not what he chooses but how he chooses. And thereby the simultaneous timelines, rather than flattening the story fatalistically, open us deeper into the true subject of the series: Alex himself. By counterpoising the self-confidence of a boy who’s never been beaten down, against the self-doubt of a middle-aged man who is growing tired of the struggle and the contentment of an older man who has objective evidence of his worth laid out before him, Me, Myself & I challenges received notions of the relation of happiness and success, and a compelling meditation on the difference between dreams and ambition.

This vision is tested with the future storyline, the series’ only genuinely open-ended narrative, focusing mainly on the recently rekindled friendship between Alex and his childhood crush Eleanor (Sharon Lawrence). Will Alex and Eleanor get together? That is certainly what the older Alex wishes will happen – but, just as it doesn’t really matter if young Alex wins the competition or not, Alex and Nori don’t have to end up together for what happens between them to matter, to him and to the viewers.

I am saddened that Me, Myself & I has been pulled from our screens. The lightness with which it told its stories made every episode a unique kind of delight, and yet there was something quite powerful in what it had set up for us – and, ironically, I really wanted to see what the future held for Me, Myself & I. But let me be clear: I have no regrets for the time I spent with Alex Riley.

The first six episodes of Me, Myself & I are currently available for streaming on CBS All Access. The fate of the show’s remaining seven episodes is still uncertain – but I am ... optimistic.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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