SUBMITTED BY DAVID CANFIELD
Andy Daly’s ruthless critical satire “Review” is the latest to join Comedy Central’s niche half-hour lineup. In its two years on-air, the series has delivered inconsequential ratings and an enthusiastic cult following, and might be less mainstream than anything we’ve seen from the network over the last decade. Its second season is uncompromising, bleak, strange and compulsively nasty – but also, at times, wildly funny.
“Review” situates challenging but fascinating moral dilemmas within an appropriately meta context: the production of television. The opening credits find Forrest MacNeil (Daly) giddily introducing himself, explaining with pride that “rather than review food or books or movies,” he reviews “life itself.” He is, for all intents and purposes, a reviewer of life – a distinction he considers with curious importance. He evaluates various tasks on a five-star scale, and he works within comically strict critical parameters.
In reality, of course, “Review” doesn’t present anything resembling “authentic” to Forrest. Participants’ questions, asked via email, video and Twitter, reflect aspects of life far removed from such minutiae. Instead, they push Forrest further and further: “What’s it like to join a cult?” “What’s it like to get a divorce?” “What’s it liked to kill somebody?” Disturbingly, he follows through – every time.
Each episode begins in the “Review” studio. The space is flashy but also overtly artificial, dominated by deep shades of blue. Forrest is always accompanied by cheery assistant A.J. Gibbs (Megan Stevenson), a woman who observes every terrible thing that happens to him with some combination of displaced eagerness and understandable concern. There’s also producer Grant (James Urbaniak), whose smarmy grin and sinister silence – especially when it comes down to whether Forrest will actually kill a person – invokes a startling degree of evil.
Once Forrest gets his assignment, he exits the studio with the determination to carry it out. As realized by principal director Jeffrey Blitz, the aesthetic of the series fundamentally shifts from poorly-produced game show to human-interest reality show. The artificiality of the production gives way to surprising realism.
That, in essence, is “Review’s” critical focus. There’s clearly very little value to the fictional “Review” – or at least, it’s antithetical to Forrest’s conception of it – but once its “host” goes out into the world with a mission to accomplish, the absurdity of the conceit works in tandem with its actual effect on Forrest. Through his unconscionable commitment to the show, he gets deeper in the process of destroying his life, one episode at a time.
Through this construct, “Review” touches on many themes. It subversively wrestles with TV as a commercial product, and criticism as valuable discourse, while also digging into some timely social issues such as “curing homosexuality.” (That one doesn’t go too well.)
“Review” elicits an unavoidable sense of complicity for the viewer to contend with. Despite its many specific merits, the series chiefly succeeds by sucking its audience deeper and deeper into its abyss of ratings-grabbing, life-destroying mania. By the end of the second season, Forrest is reduced to a prison inmate with only an imaginary friend by his side. Said friend is “stabbed” by a group of convicts, and Forrest is brought to tears, crumpled on the floor – the moment would be flat-out depressing, were it not so uncomfortably, brilliantly funny.
The show edges closer to solving its mysteries in the second season finale, but only by having Forrest begin to question them himself (as in, going meta within meta). Tasked to evaluate “believing a conspiracy theory,” he asks legitimate and provocative questions that have long existed in the real “Review” audience’s mind: are Forrest’s tasks randomly decided, or does someone like Grant intentionally choose them? Why has Forrest nearly died 11 times? And what is “Review,” anyway?
Forrest returns to his ex-wife, Suzanne (the great Jessica St. Clair) – whom he abruptly divorced after the show forced him to, and whose father he accidentally killed during the show’s mandated trip to outer space – to solve the dilemma. Equipped with a scruffy beard and crippling feelings of loneliness, he lays out his conspiracy theory. But Suzanne simply looks at him, tired, and explains that he’s to blame. Everything Forrest did he made the choice to do. And thus, his own decisions are why he’s left with nothing but a potential 12th near-death experience and a deceased imaginary friend.
That journey of self-desecration is what makes “Review” such great, visceral television. The process is laid out for Forrest’s audience, episode by episode – the very moral (and physical) deconstruction of a man. It’s an odd thing to so enjoyably check-in on weekly, but nothing about this show is sane. Quite the opposite, “Review” turns reality on its head – or, more specifically, it turns reality into television.
Both seasons of “Review” are streaming for free on www.cc.com