tv review

Forever Is Really Great, But We’re Not Allowed to Tell You Why

Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, doing stuff in Forever that we can’t talk about yet, in a place we can’t describe. Photo: Colleen Hayes/Amazon Prime Video

Forever is one of the best new shows of the fall TV season. But here’s the thing: I can’t fully tell you why.

Amazon, which will premiere Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen’s dramedy on its Prime Video platform Friday, has asked critics to stay mum regarding many of the major details that might ordinarily appear in a review. You know, little things like what this show is actually about.

In this case, I completely get the desire for secrecy. One of the joys of Forever — and there are many — is that it constantly takes unexpected left turns, shifting the show’s premise and genre more than once, especially in the initial half of its eight-episode first season. To deprive anyone of the surprises would leech some of the pleasure out of the show and miss its point. This is a series about marriage, but also about how readily human beings succumb to routine and resist being shaken out of it. By luring us into thinking we know what Forever is and where it might go next, then totally switching everything up on us, co-creators Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard are forcing us out of our habitual TV comfort zones, too.

I can tell you this much, and if I’m wrong, I’m sure I’ll be hearing about it from Jeff Bezos: Forever begins with a long series of images that slide by and explain how June (Rudolph) and Oscar (Armisen) met, began dating, and eventually embark on married life together. It’s like that famous montage from Up, but steeped in banality instead of pathos.

In certain ways, June and Oscar are a perfect match, with idiosyncratic perspectives that snap together like two halves of a locket. But when it comes to a desire for adventure, they increasingly live on separate islands. Oscar is a hoarder of habits who loves cooking the same meals and taking the same vacations, day after day, year after year, and can’t comprehend why anyone would want to mess with a blissfully comfortable thing. June increasingly feels stifled by that routine and tries to mix things up by the tiniest of degrees when she suggests that, perhaps, they could try a ski trip instead of their usual visit to a cottage by the lake.

That’s about as far as I can go plot-wise before my Prime membership gets rescinded. While that may not sound like the most enticing of setups — a show about two bored married people trying not to be boring! — there’s a sly sense of humor and a Spike Jonze-esque filmmaking style that engages right from the jump, especially if you’re the kind of person who’s into that sort of Spike Jonze-y, relationship-driven, indie-spirited sort of thing. (Note: I am that kind of person.) Yang, co-creator of Master of None, and Hubbard, a 30 Rock veteran who first worked with Yang on Parks and Recreation, co-wrote the first episode, among others, and Yang directed it. Together, they immediately establish a narrative authority and tonal command that instills confidence in taking this trip with them, whether it winds up at a lake, a ski resort, or somewhere else.

Then there’s Armisen and Rudolph, who spent years together on Saturday Night Live and share a natural ease that evokes the lived-in nature of marriage. Because June is the more dynamic character, Rudolph has more emotional meat to chew on, but she never overdoes it. Just like those of us watching, she projects the sense that she’s constantly trying to figure things out in a multitude of ways. Even when she looks content, her eyes project a suppressed desire for something more. Rudolph is famous for her array of acting gifts and she gets to draw on many of them here, jumping down some serious emotional wells and tossing off some great, wry dialogue. Also, at one point, she sings a highly spirited version of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” and if that’s not an endorsement of a TV show, I frankly don’t know what to tell you.

Armisen has a harder task in that Oscar is basically Walter Mitty without the capacity to fantasize. His character evolves over time in ways that hint at more depth than what’s on the surface, but for much of the season, he’s got to play the straightest of straight men. To his credit, he commits to it completely in a performance that’s so deceptively straightforward, it becomes funnier on multiple viewings.

Rudolph and Armisen are backed up by equally wonderful supporting players, including Catherine Keener, Peter Weller, Noah Robbins (who you might recognize from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Younger), and, in a bottle episode of sorts that completely breaks away from Forever’s principal players, Jason Mitchell and Hong Chau. That’s about all I can say about that.

I so wish I could talk about all the other films and TV series that I was reminded of while watching Forever, but to mention even one might be too much information for anyone who, rightly, wishes to go into this as cold as possible. As much as this series evokes slivers of other projects, though, it is very much its own unique creation. Forever will mystify you, make you laugh, and force you to think deeply about how and why people hold themselves back from taking risks that can elevate their lives. It’s the kind of show you can’t stop watching even though you want to savor it, and that you’ll want to discuss with someone as soon as you finish. Even though I can’t discuss it in nearly enough depth in this review, when I tell you it’s great, I’m hoping you’ll do what any partner in a marriage does for their spouse: Just trust me.