Amazon’s new series Forever, which debuts Friday, has been as shrouded in mystery as anything in recent Peak TV memory. For a long time, it was simply referred to as “Untitled Fred Armisen/Maya Rudolph comedy series,” and the identities of those stars and co-creators Alan Yang (Master of None) and Matt Hubbard (30 Rock) were about all anyone knew. Even the final title and the trailer gave away little, and when screeners of the whole eight-episode season arrived, they were accompanied by one of the more thorough lists I’ve ever read of things the creators would rather viewers not know ahead of time. I’m talking things that happen in the very first episode, and even the very premise of the show.
If I want to play along with Yang and Hubbard’s request — and the surprise of what’s happening is, in fact, one of the stronger aspects of the series — it makes actually reviewing Forever tricky bordering on impossible. Here is what I can comfortably say:
1. Rudolph and Armisen play a couple who have seemingly been going through the motions forever.
The series opens with a lovely montage of how Rudolph’s June and Armisen’s Oscar met and fell in love, scored to Miles Davis’ “It Never Entered My Mind.” Soon, though, all the things that were surprising and delightful about one another become routine, at least for her, and by the time the series proper begins, she is desperate for anything to shake up their marriage.
What happens as a result of that desire takes the show to some very strange places, tonally and geographically. But no matter where we are, the show is always primarily about the question of what happens when you commit to spend your life with another person, and how hard it is to keep finding joy in the incredibly familiar, day after day, year after year.
2. Rudolph is better suited for the material than Armisen.
The two stars worked together for years on SNL, and it’s easy early on to buy into their rapport. But where both have plenty of history playing larger-than-life comic figures, she’s also terrific at playing understated real human beings, where that never plays to his strengths. When Armisen is playing a normal guy, there’s always something off and slightly alien in his performance, as if the normality is just the set-up for some surreal Portlandia punchline. He’s almost too convincing as a man whose wife grows tired of being around, and a lot of the story’s later emotional twists and turns require Oscar to feel realer and more sympathetic than Armisen’s performance allows him to be. It’s a problem.
June and Oscar’s relationship toggles back and forth between elaborate banter and awkward small talk, just as Forever itself shifts between kitchen-sink realism and stranger detours. Rudolph’s much better at bridging those seemingly incompatible parts, whereas the Oscar that so easily makes his wife laugh bears very little resemblance to the boring dentist who makes her cry inside.
3. It’s more often a comedy in theory than practice.
That spousal banter can be the only humor in the show for long stretches, though things liven up a bit as we start to meet other characters like cranky new neighbor Kase (Catherine Kenner, having a busy week between this and Showtime’s Kidding) and bored teenager Mark (Noah Robbins). This isn’t an inherently bad thing — Master of None is just as wistful or sad a lot of the time — so much as it’s something you should be prepared for, given the creators and stars.
But even with a lot of plot twists, there’s not quite enough story to fill eight episodes. A higher joke quotient might have helped flesh out some of the slow spots.
4. The best episode has almost nothing to do with the main characters.
The sixth installment is called “Andre and Sarah,” after two strangers to the story played by Jason Mitchell and Hong Chau. It takes a very long time to explain what these two have to do with June, Oscar, Kase or anyone else we’ve been watching so far. But the characters are so impeccably drawn by the writers and the two guest stars, and the moment that explains why we’ve been watching their story so touching, that it has the dramatic weight the rest of the series aspires to but only sometimes achieves.
5. Maya Rudolph sings “This Is How We Do It.”
If you’re still on the fence about watching after reading all of the above, this might tip you over — Rudolph’s an even better singer than she is a comedian or actress, and this jam is right in her wheelhouse. Though the where and why of the performance, of course, are among the many things I’ve been asked not to tell you.