Ever since The Sopranos premiered cable television has been the home of dark and grim stories. The word “dark” has been the defining trait of cable television for years now, and it’s usually been associated with those ever-present antihero shows. However, the darkest show on television is indeed on (basic) cable and features a male lead, but it’s actually, in the strictest sense, a comedy. I am speaking of Comedy Central’s new series Review starring Andy Daly, which has featured some of the darkest and saddest television to air in years.
Every episode of Review starts with Forrest MacNeil, a man who reviews not movies, books, or food, but life experiences for his show within the show, stating, “Life, it’s literally all we have. But is it any good?” This quote embodies everything Review stands for. It frames Forrest as a hopelessly inquisitive man yearning to find out if life has any meaning at all. Yet Forrest almost answers his question himself, in that he acknowledges it’s really all we have. The meaning of life is what we make of it.
And what does Forrest make of life? Well, because of his current employment situation Forrest can’t really make any decisions whatsoever, and instead has to react to the situations that are forced upon him. And because Review (the show within the show) is supposed to be an informative television program, Forrest is expected to learn about his life.
A perfect example of this is the “Racist” segment from Review‘s second episode. (NOTE: ALL OF Review‘s FIRST SEASON IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE TO STREAM FOR FREE ON YOUTUBE, LINKED HERE. YOU NOW HAVE NO EXCUSE TO HAVE NOT WATCHED 2014’S BEST NEW SHOW.) At face value the segment serves as an incredibly hilarious take on contemporary racism, but it also shows how reviewing life experiences will come to affect Forrest’s personal life. After being a racist in daily life (putting up “White” and “Colored” signs in the office, bonding with a white supremacist) Forrest brings his work home with him, where his neighbors, one of whom is Black, are gathered. Forrest sees fit to shout the N-word at his neighbor, but he doesn’t seem too surprised by Forrest’s behavior. Instead, he’s more taken aback by Forrest’s decision to become an “overt racist.”
This is Review at its best. As Forrest’s work gets personal, his wife becomes embarrassed, and his neighbors grow more disillusioned by his behavior. (It’s worth nothing that everyone in Forrest’s life is unable to tell what he is doing for the show, and what Forrest is doing for himself). Best of all Forrest realizes that he was a racist all along. By making his work extremely personal, Review just barely scratches the surface of the deep dark depths it will take Forrest in its 9 episode run.
And yet the darkest episode of television in years airs the following week. It is the glorious “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes.” The episode is one of the most devastating pieces of television I have ever seen. First, Forrest sets out to see what it’s like to eat 15 pancakes. Then, he experiences what going through divorce is like. Finally, Forrest returns to the circumstances his first review, except in a wildly different state of mind. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling, and you should see why:
The ramifications of this review are immediately recognized. Forrest has to end a 14 year marriage, the most successful in MacNeil family history, without any reason whatsoever. Forrest also has to somehow break it to his still unaware wife Suzanne, and their young son. Forrest has to do it for the show, because his Producer Grant (played brilliantly by James Urbaniak) reminds Forrest that he has to “commit to the standard” that he set for himself.
What plays out is outstanding cringe comedy. After a brutal initial argument, Suzanne meets with Forrest again only to tell him that his request of a divorce was right. Again, Forrest learns more about his life in the worst possible way, but he still views this realization as “a plus.” In the end, Forrest isn’t able to assign “Divorce” a star rating. This is coming from the man who gave being a racist half a star. The show has completely destroyed Forrest, but it isn’t done yet.
When returning to eat 30 more pancakes, Forrest is only able to feel a “vast, empty numbness.” When starting the challenge, courage eventually turns into nihilism. Forrest connects with the darkest corner of his soul and remarks, “Perhaps I simply understood that these pancakes couldn’t kill me. Because I was already dead.”
Instead of connecting with the profundity of life, Forrest continues to only learn about the worst. Forrest’s dark journey turns incredibly sad, and ultimately devastating. A man’s job has driven him to become addicted to cocaine, divorce his wife, kill a man through road rage, be institutionalized, and many other terribly sad things. This is what television was made for. Week to week we check in with Forrest, only to find his life even more devastating than the week before. And the worst/best part is that it’s incredibly funny.
Review makes us laugh at the most devastating aspects of Forrest’s life. We’re watching, and sometimes even enjoying, the slow disintegration of a seemingly normal man’s life. The show’s mockumentary style of filming makes us even complicit in doing so. By doing this, Review is pushing the medium of the television sitcom to its limits.
And thankfully, no other show on TV is doing anything like what Review is doing. The direction of Forrest’s character arc is something completely idiosyncratic to Review, and it’s utterly audacious television. There’s nothing darker, sadder, and funnier on TV right now other than Review. So, the only thing to say is 5 Stars!