In his 1983 book, Lost in The Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Walker Percy proposed an unforgettable thought experiment: "Imagine a soap opera in which a character awakens every morning with amnesia, in a strange house with a strange, attractive man (or woman), welcomed by the stranger, looking out a strange window with a strange view, having forgotten the past each morning and starting life afresh, seeing the window, the view, himself, herself, in the mirror afresh and for the first time. Does this prospect intrigue you?"
Adapted from the Australian TV series Review With Myles Barlow, Comedy Central's Review, which wrapped up its inaugural season last week, is both a grim riff on Percy's amnesiac scenario and a long-form comic triumph.
Review's premise is perfect for our current epoch of criticism. Each week, critic turned TV personality Forrest MacNeil (Andrew Daly) "reviews" two to three "life experiences" suggested by his audience. (His deathless rallying cry is "Life! It's literally all we've got. But is it any good?") After he receives his assignment, Forrest's attractive, quietly mean-spirited co-host A.J. (Megan Stevenson) cheers him on — and occasionally cheers him up — as he leaves the TV studio and sets out to discover what the world has to offer. Whether he's finding a best friend or attending an orgy, Forrest's earnest fish-out-of-water spasms and open-minded commitment to every gross, dangerous, and morally questionable thing he's asked to do provide plenty of opportunities for dark, idiosyncratic humor.
As Forrest's fragile sense of self is kicked, battered, and bloodied by factors both external (drugs, peer pressure) and internal (self-loathing, boredom), the reviews he's asked to complete begin to haunt him. Repeatedly, Forrest answers slight variations on the same question: "Who are you?" His star-ratings responses end up validating Herman Melville's assertion from the 1857 novel The Confidence-Man: "For there is no bent of heart or turn of thought which any man holds by virtue of an unalterable nature or will. Even those feelings and opinions deemed most identical with eternal right and truth ... may in reality be but the result of some chance tip of Fate's elbow in throwing her dice." One nudge, and you're a racist. One shove, and you're shot into outer space.
In a macabre twist, Forrest isn't allowed to discuss his day job with anyone but his co-workers. As his assignments grow more outlandish, the increasing damage to his family and friends provides a sobering subtext. The episode titles themselves could be the names of unfinished Samuel Beckett plays: "Sex Tape, Racist, Hunting"; "Marry, Run, Party"; "Quitting, Last Day, Irish." Episode 3, "Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes," is the series' widely acknowledged high point, a mixture of childish gross-out humor and piercing adult despair. But it isn't as finely tuned as the "Aching" segment of "Revenge, Getting Rich, Aching," which is the funniest thing I've seen this year.
Review's near-perfect finale works as both a season and series finale. It would be a shame and a major loss if it didn't return. Then again, if it ceased to exist, its hard-earned perfection and five-star rating would remain untarnished forever.
First season just wrapped; available on Amazon Prime and the Comedy Central app