Spoilers below for Forever. You’ve been warned!
There’s a lovely stand-alone story embedded in the new Amazon series Forever. The bulk of the show is anchored by Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen’s characters June and Oscar, a married couple who die and then find themselves in the afterlife, still facing the same relationship problems that beset them in life. In episode six, though, we return to the world of the living to follow two home realtors, Andre (Jason Mitchell) and Sarah (Hong Chau). They connect at an otherwise empty open house for a property that Sarah’s trying to sell, and the episode then jumps ahead in time to revisit them at later points, including their surprise reunion years later, a scene shortly thereafter where they’re romantically involved, and then a final scene in the same property, where an aged Andre learns that Sarah has died.
In that last scene, Forever loops this otherwise stand-alone story back into the main narrative. The camera pans from a shot of a regretful Andre, sitting alone in an empty house, to a shot of June, standing in the foyer and observing him from her invisible position in the afterlife. She’s moved by what Andre and Sarah have lost, by their choice to preserve a comfortable status quo rather than sacrifice it for the sake of true love. Witnessing that story pushes June to leave Oscar, and in the next episode she sets out to find something different for her eternity, refusing to settle into an unending loop of crosswords and shuffleboard.
Andre and Sarah’s love story is part and parcel with Forever’s thematic obsessions, but it’s still surprising this story is there at all. Forever is a sparse show at a scant four hours, and it’s more about metaphor and imagery than it is about plot. In only eight episodes, Forever covers June and Oscar in life, June after Oscar’s death, their joint experience of the afterlife, and the dissolution of their marriage to the point when they decide to split. That’s a lot to get done! So it’s notable that the series still makes time for an entirely unrelated story about two strangers, more than halfway through its brief season. It’s also representative of one of the smartest things Forever does: It ties its imagistic, artsy-fartsy, dreamy abstractions about existentialist anxiety and the nature of marriage to an unshakable episodic frame.
Even though Forever is only four hours’ long, it doesn’t reveal its premise for nearly an hour, follows a very simple arc between two people, and is definitely intended to be understood as a completed unit, each episode also follows a fully formed, thoughtful arc from beginning to end. The second episode, where June copes with Oscar’s death, is a short story about one woman’s experience with grief, beginning with the depths of her sadness, moving through her resistance to building a new life, and then finally resolving into her willingness to look forward to new adventures. The fourth episode is shaped around the arrival of Kase (Catherine Keener), a newcomer to Oscar and June’s afterlife community. These tightly wound, half-hour-ish arcs give Forever a sense of motion and life, which feels both essential and also winkingly self-aware in a story about immobility, the frustration of a static relationship, and the concept of infinity. June and Oscar’s (after)lives are going absolutely nowhere, and they’re also chopped up into beautifully dynamic bite-sized bits.
Forever’s episodic rhythm also means that when we meet Andre and Sarah, their stand-alone story doesn’t feel out of place. The show’s established conceit was already that each episode does its own thing, so when Andre and Sarah show up, it doesn’t feel like a pointless side story. Compare that to the messy stand-alone installment of Stranger Things 2, which forced a brand-new plot into the narrative, dissipating all the tension the season had established up to that point. Conversely, GLOW integrated a fantastic stand-alone episode into its second season: “The Good Twin” worked not just because the episode itself was strong, but because the show was already weaving episode-length thematic ideas into its otherwise serialized story. As it has in the past, BoJack Horseman’s new season includes a wrenching stand-alone story, this time about BoJack eulogizing his mother. The structure isn’t limited to half-hour comedies, either: The same approach worked for Hulu’s Castle Rock, which crested with the breathtaking stand-alone episode “The Queen,” featuring Sissy Spacek’s Ruth, frantically fighting her way through the shifting timelines of her own memory.
Of course, “Andre and Sarah” wouldn’t work if the episode wasn’t great all on its own. Mitchell and Chau are so endearing together, and the episode’s reliance on conversations that weave together big ideas with emotional specificity makes the half hour feel worthwhile while also speaking to the season’s larger themes about marriage and time. It’s also a part of what I can only hope will be a broader renaissance of streaming seasons designed around snappy, concise episodic stories, which occasionally take the risk to break out into stand-alone installments.
If Forever, a four-hour series that could actually have been a very long movie, still relies on internally cohesive episodic stories and is undeniably better for it, then nobody has an excuse anymore. (I’m talking to you, Jessica Jones! And you, Ozark!) The best streaming shows are the ones that have figured out what old-school TV narratives have known all along: Stand-alone episodes are good, and a regular episodic backbone is even better. Forever does it as well as any streaming season has to date. Let’s hope more shows will learn from its example.