“Life. It’s literally all we have. But is it any good?”
Last night, this so very critical question was posed by Andy Daly’s earnest and committed life critic Forest MacNeil before taking on the life experiences of stealing, addiction, and the prom in the premiere episode of Review on Comedy Central. By MacNeil’s patented five-star rating system, the experiences didn’t fare well, but the pilot works as a highly successful demonstration of the show’s central concept in action, and its blend of dark comedy and news magazine parody, sharp writing, and talented cast make it a very promising show with seemingly endless storytelling potential.
Based on the Australian series Review with Myles Barlow, Daly plays Forest MacNeil, a critic in the mold of an extreme George Plimpton, a consummate experiential journalist who sought out uncommon life experiences like those of extraordinary athletes for example, playing goalie for the Boston Bruins and writing about what it means and feels to do the thing so few of us experience.
Plimpton pursued that which sparked his curiosity, but MacNeil’s activities are viewer-directed; it’s less about him pursuing his interests to their highest possible levels of expression than being of service to (and at the mercy of) his viewership. Whatever you’re curious about, MacNeil will do it. Review takes the life-by-proxy appeal of reality television to its logical conclusion by asking viewers what they want to see. Unlike critics who review movies (or TV shows) that you could see without reading a review, MacNeil often does what you or any other sane person wouldn’t.
The first episode joins the sleek life review program already in progress and running like a well-oiled machine. MacNeil is the intrepid host and sole field reporter, while his co-host A.J. Gibbs (Megan Stevenson) mostly just reads the questions sent in by viewers – occasionally misreading something but blowing right past it – and encouragingly sends MacNeil out the door. While in the first episode Gibbs is written and played mostly straight, the second episode fleshes her out as slightly oblivious while still having much more life experience than MacNeil, who wholeheartedly embraces his assignments with wide-eyed enthusiasm.
He’s clearly mastered the skill of delivering articulate, 60 Minutes-worthy narration, but MacNeil is the kind of square who finds stealing a few of his favorite candy milk-balls (he’s this kind of milquetoast) from the grocery store just too scary, then too thrilling, then not thrilling enough. In its writing, Review’s best asset is MacNeil’s diligence to the task, whether he’s just discovered that sweet theft high or he’s being asked to do something far more unpleasant like eat 15 pancakes in a single sitting. MacNeil finds shoplifting doesn’t capture the essence of stealing on the whole, so he escalates to really get a feel for it and enlists his unpaid intern Josh (Michael Croner) in a proper bank heist. No law is too rigid and no consequence too great for brave, noble, and dumb MacNeil.
One possible format for a show reviewing life could be mockumentary, placing MacNeil in real-life situations that find him breaking social norms and mining humor from people’s reactions. A hidden camera show or Borat-style satire would have amplified some of the cringe factor in watching MacNeil interact with the public in its current form, but since the show has its sights set on giving racism, cannibalism, and drug addiction the college try, a fictional format allows the show within Review to tackle all kinds of illegal and unsavory activity.
Having a character with a fictional but fully-realized life and family also provides the show with much of its humor as MacNeil navigates accomplishing his tasks without telling his loved ones, even when his commitment to Review conflicts with their wishes and his own values. When MacNeil wants to make a sex tape and his wife Suzanne (Jessica St. Clair) isn’t interested, he’s put in the awkward position of violating the trust of his ‘best friend, confidante, and partner in life.’ But, the show must go on, and MacNeil is willing to endure just about anything to discover some larger truth behind the experience and convey that to viewers. If the will isn’t there for a particularly challenging task, MacNeil’s rarely-seen producer Grant (James Urbaniak) steps in from behind the camera to remind him of the solemn vow he made. MacNeil finds a way to make that sex tape in a creative way.
The people in MacNeil’s life are evidently aware that it’s normal for cameras to follow him around now and then, as when he and his father-in-law (Fred Willard) go on an ill-advised night hunting trip, but it’s clear they don’t realize his erratic behavior is just for a TV show (which serves humankind) presumably because it would change their reactions, tainting the experiment. MacNeil isn’t about to warn his black neighbor he’s about to become a super racist or he might corrupt the integrity of the mission.
Upcoming episodes featuring guest stars like Jason Mantzoukas, Andy Richter, and Ashley Tisdale retain the premiere episode’s blend of stunty tasks, MacNeil’s office life, and the toll MacNeil’s proud profession takes on his home life. For as dark as the first episode goes with MacNeil diving headfirst into cocaine addiction, overdosing during his son’s Boy Scout camping trip, and entering into what would appear to others to be an inappropriate relationship with his son’s babysitter, it can only get worse for him. But if the show continues to nail its tone and what’s inherently funny about its concept and Daly keeps up his strong performance as this constantly gung-ho and too-dedicated professional, it can only get better for us.
Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.