Reviewing ‘Review’ and Reviewing Reviewing ‘Review’
Before we get to my review of Review, a quick review of reviewing Review: Reviewing Review ended up being a lot of typing, and is not nearly as enjoyable as watching Review, but it is a good chance to evangelize about a show I think is basically great. Three and a half stars.
There are a lot of shows that can be said to follow a certain formula. In every episode of Seinfeld, Jerry gets disproportionately upset or obsessed over something small. In every episode of Three’s Company, there is a wacky misunderstanding, usually predicated on Jack Tripper’s sexuality. In every episode of Bar Rescue, John Taffer surprises a business owner by telling them that they’re bad at business, and singles out one Amazonian waitress as the best reason he’s helping said business. And so on.
In every episode of Review, Forrest MacNeil reviews a handful of experiences, and each goes as horrible sideways as you never could have imagined. As a formula, it’s a winning one.
But Review is much, much more than the sum of a couple of dozen seemingly-unrelated assessments spinning reliably out of control. Yes, on an episode-by-episode basis, the show is funny and surprising. Andy Daly consistently nails his multi-layered characterization of Forrest as naïve, pompous, well-meaning, latently racist, and myopically privileged but totally degraded. Daly sells Forrest’s absurd dedication to his pursuit of reviewing life experiences.
But thanks to this last trait, the show as a whole is the hilarious, inventive, and intricately-plotted depiction of the destruction of a human being’s life. There’s something specifically satisfying about the way Review thinks of the worst thing that could possibly happen and then falls down its hole into a destructive conclusion. Maybe it scratches a pessimist itch. But either through Forrest’s own quirks or the strange world of the show, the absurd happenings feel more than justified, they feel inevitable. It’s great, especially if you ever liked seeing Wily E. Coyote look down over the canyon.
But in the first season, thanks to his dogged commitment to living his user-suggested experiences truthfully, all the absolute worst things happened and Forrest’s world quickly and spectacularly unraveled. An early episode found him divorcing his beloved wife Suzanne (the charming Playing House’s charming Jessica St. Clair), but by the end of the season he had had his car stolen, gotten addicted to cocaine, been responsible for his father-in-law’s death, married a stranger, been kicked out of prom, fallen on hot coals, committed road rage-induced manslaughter, almost died countless times, and cetera. Even his assistant, AJ Gibbs (Megan Stevenson), was pelted by the human feces of a mentally ill community college professor. Shit had gone down; all around really, specifically in AJ’s hair. And Forrest, in the only move a human could possibly make, quit the show.
As such, the first season seemed difficult to top and the second difficult to justify, for Forrest’s character if not the network, but here we are.
Forrest has returned to the show thanks to a renewed sense of purpose and a lack of other opportunities (between seasons a Rottweiler found him living in the crawlspace under a church). It seemed, at first glance, like the second season of Review might not be as tight as the first; that there might not be much more to explore. In season two, the reviews tend, somewhat disappointingly, to be more extreme — violent or sexual or offensively over-the-top, instead of brilliantly benign or weird. There has not yet been a series of calamities close to as ingeniously dark and inventive as last season’s appraisal of the mix-up “there all is aching” (really a user name, TheRealLisaChing; still resulted in Forrest’s being committed), or even “eating pancakes.” What’s more, the individual episode arcs are not as quite as ingeniously taut as the best of season one (I mean, still pretty solid, when a yard cult ends up battling an orange man hunk of MacNeil), and they have not yet added up to a grand a vision as season one. But that is, of course, part of the nature of being only halfway through the season.
Some other things are different in season two, though: Forrest has the option to veto two of his challenges, an option he’s chosen not to use, even on converting a homosexual, starting a cult, and bare-knuckle brawling. Another change, AJ Gibbs is kind of stupid this season? She thinks “willy-nilly” is a person, while in the last go-round, her main character trait was disdain for Forrest and a subtle cunning. If a side character is to be investigated in the second half of season two, I hope we learn more about Forrest’s malevolent guardian angel of a producer, Grant (James Urbaniak), who keeps his hapless reviewer on task in direct violation of his best interests. His sick mix of devotion, manipulation, and utter disregard would make him an amazing addition to the summer’s best show (UnREAL, like you have to ask), but has just been barely hinted at.
In season one, the horrific and amazing tapestry took a full season to be woven, as you learned what Forrest had at stake and how much he wanted back what he lost. The first half of this season has been less and less about the unreviewed life Forrest left behind, and more and more about his rebuilding. The through lines have been the characters still standing by Forrest: his assistant’s possibly sociopathic girlfriend, his father’s various destroyed homes, his girlfriends’ (three in the first four episodes, dude gets around) huge disappointments. His current circumstances make for a solid base for his continued debasement, but they lack the emotional heft of a man fighting to regain his family.
Review is at its best when the reality of Forrest’s risks really come to life. While you feel for Forrest’s father, he’s a late addition to the game. Marissa (Fargo’s Alison Folman!), the trusting nurse who cares for Forrest after he’s shot (duh, he’s shot) and earns the spot as his first girlfriend/blackmail victim, is beautifully betrayed, but her introduction and downfall come in too quick succession to pack the same punch as Suzanne’s pain. St. Clair’s frustration and bewilderment as Forrest’s wife is unparalleled; why she never understands that Forrest’s strange behavior is part of his job is the delightfully confounding, utterly sad heart of Review. But the most recent episode may have had glimmers of, perhaps, a larger plot to come, with the reappearance of Suzanne, Forrest’s railing against his lost past, and his continued inability to see his own failings. Yay, you’re back!
Review: Four out of five stars.