Warning: this article contains some mild spoilers for “Forever.”
“Forever,” a new Amazon original series which premiered Sept. 14, has a seriously funny pedigree. The series creators, Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard, are veterans of acclaimed TV comedies — Yang co-created “Master of None,” Hubbard wrote for “30 Rock” and both worked on “Parks and Recreation.” “Forever” also stars Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, two “Saturday Night Live” alumni who are best known for broad, silly sketch comedy. With this kind of talent involved, one might expect “Forever” to be a fast-paced laugh fest. However, from the very first episode, “Forever” strikes an entirely different tone — in many respects, this show is no laughing matter.
These shows balance comedy and drama, sometimes in the very same scene. They are often very funny, but they are interested in more than making the audience laugh — they adopt the rhythms of traditional sitcoms to tackle some very serious topics. Sadcoms tend to be some of the most interesting and inventive TV today, and at this point, they vary wildly in tone, subject matter and style. “Bojack Horseman” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” are both genre-blurring comedies about mental illness set in southern California, but their strengths, fan bases and points of view are entirely distinct.
“Forever” may be one of the most unique additions to this unofficial club. The series follows June (Rudolph) and Oscar (Armisen), a childless married couple living a quiet middle-class existence in suburban California. In a remarkable opening sequence, viewers see June and Oscar’s courtship unfold in short, silent scenes. The pair shares an obvious connection, but their life eventually falls into an endless routine. Before a word of dialogue is spoken, viewers get a sense of the show’s main conflict — Oscar is perfectly satisfied, while June feels trapped, desperate for something different.
What happens next really should not be spoiled, but it’s safe to say this show moves far beyond the relationship drama suggested by the pilot. Over eight short episodes, “Forever” goes through several transformations, mercilessly discarding genres and characters. The series is linked by one dominant question: what does it mean for two people to be together forever?
To Binge or Not to Binge:
No one can accuse “Forever” of a lack of ambition. Unlike its characters, the show is constantly reinventing itself. In the first few episodes especially, this quality is wonderfully disorienting, and it feels refreshing to watch a series so willing to take risks. Plus, from the opening scene (which remains the highlight of the series) “Forever” boasts a visual flare several grades above your typical network sitcom. Many images in the series are beautifully composed, and the impeccable production design establishes a complete visual language. (Yang, Janicza Bravo and Miguel Arteta directed the series). “Forever” also benefits from a haunting, engaging score by composer Daniel Hart.
While its experimentation is admirable, it is also the show’s most major flaw. By the end of the season, viewers may feel that Hubbard and Yang wrote one twist too many. Over the four hour running time, the series bites off more than it can chew, building a potentially interesting world with few details colored in. “Forever” covers a wide range of themes, questioning love, sex, monogamy, time and death, but the end result is too scattered to make any sort of lasting impact. For all of its stylistic gravitas and bold ideas, the show still feels like a first draft, in need of a good editor and a unifying vision.
For Rudolph and Armisen, the aggressively normal characters of Oscar and June present a unique challenge. Both are inspired sketch comics, with quick timing, a knack for an improvisation and an ability to sell even the most ridiculous ideas. In “Forever,” neither have obvious punch lines, and both get a chance to show off a dramatic range. Luckily, both actors are up to the task. It is wonderful to see the perpetually underrated Rudolph receive a meaty role like this, and she handles the many dimensions of June with aplomb. Armisen’s character is less dynamic, but he still gives a soulful performance, and “Forever” often basks in the pair’s easy chemistry. Still, I found myself missing Rudolph and Armisen’s natural goofiness, and spending time with these muted characters can be kind of a bummer.
In what may be the series’ best episode, the perspective shifts almost entirely away from Oscar and June, focusing on the love story of two entirely new characters, played by Hong Chau and Jason Mitchell. This bold choice pays off, telling a story of missed connections and unexpected love that is perfectly observed and quietly moving. In some ways, the episode captures the themes of “Forever” better than the actual storyline of the series. In this digression, Yang and Hubbard show audiences what they are capable of — and remind us that great storytelling can still grow from conventional origins.
Best episode: “Together Forever” and “Andre and Sarah”
Similar shows: “Master of None,” “Love,” “Insecure,” “You’re the Worst,” “The Good Place,” “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Bojack Horseman”
Trigger warnings: This show contains strong language and some occasional sexual humor.
Available to stream on Amazon.
8 episodes, approximately 4 hours