For a few years in the mid-2010s, Amy Schumer was as prominent and acclaimed a comic voice as there was to be found anywhere in American pop culture. Her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer wickedly parodied the television of the day. (Josh Charles came in for note-perfect spoofs of both Friday Night Lights and The Newsroom, the latter “bestowed upon you by Aaron Sorkin.”) It dug deep on the strange and terrible ways society could view women, or that women could view themselves, whether in the implied homoeroticism of men’s fascination with “chicks who can hang,” or the way that women are conditioned to view getting fat as the worst societal sin they could commit. And in the show’s masterpiece, an episode-length parody of Twelve Angry Men where the jurors argued over whether Schumer was attractive enough to have her own TV show, it did all those things at once.
After the series ended, Schumer starred in some more movies, co-hosted a pandemic cooking show with her chef husband Chris Fischer, and appeared in a documentary series about her latest comedy tour coinciding with a difficult pregnancy. She hardly vanished, yet she wasn’t as present in the zeitgeist as she had been in the Comedy Central days. So while her new Hulu show Life & Beth — which she created, stars in, writes for, sometimes directs, and executive-produces — isn’t exactly a comeback vehicle, it does feel like a louder declaration that she’s entering a new phase of her career than, say, Amy Schumer Learns to Cook did.
Despite telling a relatively small story, Life & Beth can at times feel guilty of trying to do too much, as if Schumer and her collaborators (including Inside Amy Schumer director Ryan McFaul) want to showcase everything she’s still capable of since she was last in the spotlight, as well as demonstrate new skills she’s picked up along the way. Not all of those things work seamlessly with one another, and some of them don’t work at all. But Life & Beth is an interesting and ultimately sweet and likable tale, and a solid soft-relaunch of sorts for Schumer herself.
As the punny title suggests, Schumer plays a woman named Beth(*), whose life on paper seems enviable. She lives in Manhattan, has been in a long-term relationship with the handsome Matt (Kevin Kane), and has a job as a wine distributor that gets her into all the fanciest restaurants in town. We’re introduced to her as she pitches some potential clients on buying her company’s wine, but soon she is pitching herself and her allegedly great existence, since it’s what they seem to want to hear. The more she talks, the less enthusiastic she sounds about any of it. She just keeps going along with the gig, with Matt, with all of it, simply because it’s the path of least resistance. But she can’t understand why she’s so unhappy.
(*) I suppose she could be playing a woman named “Life,” and the whole thing could be a buddy-cop satire — maybe co-starring Schumer’s old friend Bridget Everett in between making seasons of Somebody Somewhere, which shares comedian Murray Hill with this show — but that’s something else entirely.
That first episode also brings in Laura Benanti to play Beth’s mother Jane. Benanti and Schumer are basically the same age — at least Michael Rapaport, who plays her father, Leonard, in several episodes, is a decade older — and, at first, the casting feels like a broad joke about how old and tired Beth feels even as her mom is bouncing around like she’s still a young(ish) woman. The reasoning is more complicated than that, as is the nature of Beth’s relationship with Jane, why Beth seems so uncomfortable around her mom, and why her younger sister, Ann (Susannah Flood), wants no part of Jane at all. An unexpected event forces Beth to re-examine everything and everyone that has brought her to this point, and to take a break from the city to spend time at her old Long Island stomping grounds in hopes of figuring out how she turned out this way.
Tonally, the show can be all over the map. The first couple of episodes are almost oppressively dark in how they put you inside Beth’s head to appreciate her utter ennui. It’s not really until the third episode that the actual shape of the season comes into focus, including the arrival of Michael Cera as John, the plain-spoken farmer who handles the produce at a local winery. And it’s not until the fourth (directed by Schumer and written by fellow Inside Amy Schumer vet Tami Sagher) that all the show’s elements — not just the comedy and the drama, but Beth’s present-day story versus flashbacks to an adolescent Beth (Violet Young) in the Nineties — start to really click. Yet even after that episode, the style can fluctuate wildly: buttoned-down and slightly whimsical art-house drama one minute; broad, sketch-style comedy the next.
But if the pieces often seem mismatched, they tend to be strong individually. The main goal seems to be demonstrating that Schumer can play a more serious and openly damaged (even relative to something like Trainwreck) character. Life & Beth succeeds there; she’s very good, and grows more compelling the more we learn about how Beth’s past informs her present circumstances. But the show does well to showcase its other actors in new ways, from performers who appear in strange, brief cameos, like Hank Azaria and David Byrne, to ones featured more prominently in an episode or two (Jonathan Groff is very funny as a personal trainer who seems to like Beth entirely because she lives in Manhattan), to ones utilized in bigger, ongoing roles. This is a very different, totally deadpan and yet sincere Michael Cera from the guy we’re used to. Anyone who’s watched Schumer and her husband interact in various docuseries will recognize some of the dynamic between Beth and John, and if they do not appear to be a great couple at first, there’s something terribly charming to the way art has chosen to imitate life here.
And where sometimes the humor can feel forced, or like an ill-timed release valve for the ongoing discomfort that Beth feels, the show over time demonstrates a winningly sly and almost gentle sense of humor. There’s an effective running gag, for instance, about Beth’s friend, Maya (Yamaneika Saunders), who is Black, now exclusively dating Jewish men, and another one about the never-ending pile of Amazon packages on Jane’s doorstep every time Beth returns to her childhood home. In one episode, Beth’s friends take her out to a local club to cheer her up; within a few minutes, all admit that their feet are killing them and they hate the vibe, followed by a cut to them having much more fun browsing at Nordstrom Rack. Even an episode where Beth, John, and Ann take mushrooms and go out on John’s boat is among the more mellow examples you’ll find of comedy episode where the main characters all get high at the same time. And, of course, Schumer still knows her way around a good punchline, like Beth comparing a night with an athletic man to “a sea otter fucking a slab of marble.”
Where Hulu was ahead of the curve among streamers in doing weekly releases (or, at least, hybrid ones) for many of its shows, Life & Beth is going to be one of their occasional binge releases, with all 10 episodes streaming on March 18. This is for the best. It’s not just that the show takes a little while to find itself, nor that it still moves very leisurely even once it becomes clear what the premise and tone (mostly) are. It’s that the old injuries Beth is wrestling with — both physical and emotional ones — are subtle and delicate things, best learned about in a short burst rather than being the subject of grandiose theorizing for weeks on end.
Trying something new can be scary, whether you’re jumping right in, like Beth, or coming back after something of a break, like Amy. Life & Beth is, like its heroine, imperfect. But if it occasionally trips over its own ambitions, it also demonstrates that whatever Amy Schumer wants to try next — as an actor and/or a creator — she has the varied and impressive skills to make it work.