tv review

The Premise Is Flawed

Jon Bernthal in episode two of The Premise, “Moment of Silence.” Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

The Premise is a new anthology series created by B.J. Novak in which every episode has a provocative premise that only occasionally leads anywhere worth going. FX on Hulu is billing the show as “an anthology of now,” a nod to each chapter’s engagement with contemporary issues such as online trolling, gun violence, performative wokeness, and the glorification of celebrity. Every half-hour installment, including the first two that debut tomorrow, practically screams to be described as “of the moment,” or if not ripped from the headlines, then certainly “ripped from your social-media feeds.” But there’s something off about almost all of it, including the project’s thinly stretched attempts at humor and ideas that get so muddled, it’s unclear what point has been made by the end of each episode.

Novak, who has written two engaging, best-selling books since his time on The Office — the short-story collection One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories and the children’s offering The Book With No Pictures — wrote all of the episodes and directed the second and third. (He co-wrote the first episode with journalist Josie Duffy Rice and the fourth with Jia Tolentino.) Like many of the narratives in One More Thing, the pieces of The Premise skewer American culture via bizarre scenarios that take elements of reality and heighten them for satirical and/or extra-dramatic purposes. But unlike the stories in that published work, which were often imaginative and told with dry humor, these televised takes go way over the top, straining the bounds of believability and losing their threads halfway through, if not sooner.

The first episode, “Social Justice Sex Tape,” is a mess that starts out hot, then gets nuked in the microwave until it’s so scorching you can barely eat it. In it, a veteran attorney (Tracee Ellis-Ross) and one of her up-and-coming lawyers (Ayo Edebiri) are representing a Black man (Jermaine Fowler) who has been falsely accused of instigating an act of police brutality. They are anonymously emailed a video that captures the man’s interaction with the cops and proves the police were at fault. The only problem: The footage was captured accidentally, outside the window of an apartment while a man (Ben Platt) was filming a sex tape. Platt’s character, a progressive who vocally supports the Black Lives Matter movement, has to decide whether to testify and allow the video to be shown in court, or refuse and completely shirk his responsibilities as an ally.

If this situation somehow occurred in real life and the video needed to be presented as evidence, surely the embarrassingly juvenile sex would be blurred or sliced out of the frame. But to acknowledge that would make it impossible to see Novak and Rice’s concept through to the barely amusing points it wants to make about Platt’s character and cancel culture, which completely obscure what “Social Justice Sex Tape” should be about: a Black man sitting in jail for no reason. That’s one of the most frustrating things about The Premise: The premises on The Premise are so flimsy, yet so certain they’re saying something “important.” The stories play out in inorganic ways because Novak and his creative team have decided to stick to their orchestrated plot points, logic be damned. Honestly, it’s almost brave to create a show called The Premise and then come up with premises that can so easily be punctured. Almost.

Take episode three, “The Ballad of Jesse Wheeler,” in which pop star Jesse Wheeler (Lucas Hedges) returns to his old high school to announce he’s paying for its new library. When that news doesn’t wow the teen fans in the audience, he declares that whoever becomes class valedictorian will win an all-expenses-paid trip to one of his concerts in L.A. and also, the chance to have sex with him. For some reason, this “contest” proceeds with no pushback from parents and only minimal concern from the school superintendent. Even more nonsensically, Abbi (Kaitlyn Dever), a student who barely shows up for class, starts applying herself in an attempt to win the chance to connect with Hedges’s pseudo-Bieber, even though, last I checked, it’s pretty hard to rise to valedictorian status in the last few months before graduation. The whole thing is meant to be cheeky and funny, but despite the best efforts of the actors, it just seems sloppy.

In the fifth episode, “Butt Plug,” Eli (Eric Lange), who used to bully his poor immigrant classmate when they were kids, must approach that same classmate, Daniel (Daniel Dae Kim), who is now an incredibly successful CEO in the banking business, to ask if he’ll invest in Eli’s financial services start-up. Daniel counters with another proposal: that Eli quit his job and spend a year designing a groundbreaking product for Daniel that Eli will then present to his board of directors, with no guarantee that it will be funded or that Eli will ever be paid. That product, in case you hadn’t guessed, is a butt plug. Does the episode reckon with the fact that Eli only approaches Daniel because he and his wife are desperate for money, yet Eli still decides it makes sense for him to quit his job and become a volunteer butt-plug designer for a year? Not really! Certainly not enough!

A through-line in The Premise is a repeated focus on narcissism and how much shame a person is willing to tolerate, whether that involves an awkward PowerPoint presentation, exposure of a sex tape or, in “The Commenter,” trolling on Instagram. In every episode, the possibility that the protagonist will do something drastic simmers below the surface. Real tension is only felt in two episodes, though: the aforementioned “Butt Plug” and “Moment of Silence,” both of which are buoyed by strong performances from their leads and a greater sense of storytelling focus.

“Moment of Silence” is also the most uncomfortable, straight-dramatic installment of The Premise. It stars Jon Bernthal as the father of a school-shooting victim determined to work in the PR department for the National Gun Lobby, an obvious stand-in for the NRA, in the wake of his daughter’s death. Bernthal commits so fully to his character’s anguish and mystique — the guy’s purportedly pro-gun, but he also makes the audience wonder if his grief has motivated him to pull some sort of sinister long con — that you genuinely wonder what he’s up to and how the episode will resolve.

But it’s also hard to shake the feeling that it’s wrong to bend a story of this particular type of grief and loss around a gimmick. That’s what The Premise really is: a series of episodes that each have their own gimmick. “Moment of Silence,” at least, is smart enough to not try to be funny. The other episodes try too hard and, too often, fail.

The Premise Is Flawed