We Need to Talk About Amazon's Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen Comedy *Forever*

We Need to Talk About Amazon's Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen Comedy *Forever*

With little fanfare—even less spilling of its secret central conceit—Amazon released its new comedy, Forever, earlier this month. Starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen as married couple June and Oscar, it’s a show that wrings every last bit of humor out of the day-to-day humdrum of domestic partnership. It’s like if one of the odd couples Armisen was a part of on Portlandia wrote their own show after a lot of therapy. It also happens to be one of the best new shows of the fall.

Created by Alan Yang (Master of None) and Matt Hubbard (30 Rock), Forever also has a premise that’s better left unshared. (At least in this intro; we can’t promise there are no spoilers below.) Like an onion made of wit and insight and tract housing, it gets a little more intense each time you pull off a new layer/episode. Let’s just say: It gets deep fast.

Forever is also an excellent watercooler show—a binge-able program so easily consumed in a day/weekend, it’s the perfect thing to hash out with your coworkers in a Monday morning Slack marathon. So that’s what we did. Below, WIRED writers and editors Emily Dreyfuss, Jason Parham, Peter Rubin, and Angela Watercutter discuss the ups and downs of Amazon’s latest sleeper hit.

Angela Watercutter: I’m going to kick this one off by throwing it to the group because A) I care more about what you all think, and B) There are people in this discussion that I’m pretty sure liked Amazon’s latest original series more than I did. (I enjoyed it, but was not obsessed.) I will say, though, that with as with many other movies and TV shows before it, Forever really started to sing for me when Catherine Keener showed up.

Jason Parham:_ Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Maya Rudolph is an absolute revelation. She’s mostly recognizable from her seven-season run on Saturday Night Live and more recently as the voice of Connie on the naughty Netflix romp Big Mouth, but it baffles me that she’s yet to be the engine of her own TV series. There was the short-lived and critically-loathed Maya & Marty NBC variety hour from 2016, but that only lasted six episodes before it was ultimately shelved. Rudolph’s been a reliable assist-woman for years—often outshining cast regulars like she did during her two-episode stint on last season’s The Good Place—but Forever proves she’s more than worthy of center stage, all on her own.

I think what drew me in—and why I continued to watch, even as the show unveiled twist after twist, some with more success than others—had less to do with its increasingly common premise, which we can get into later, and more because it’s the rare TV vehicle that allows its women characters true range: to fly, to flail, to fail. To your point Angela, the introduction of Kase (Keener) as the second (or was it third?) narrative wrench helped pull Forever out of its early thematic stasis, which initially felt fresh but soured quickly. Her and June’s eventual friendship was a natural, if somewhat expected, rejection to the tyranny of eternal routine, which June is trying to break free of. Kase provides a fun spark. You can feel the shift, too. It’s the scene where Oscar stumbles upon June in the backyard burning a dresser in the middle of the night just after she’s had a minor spat with Kase. I remember thinking, “Now we’re going somewhere.” And though she’s only in the first third of the series, Kym Whitley’s Sharon was a joy to watch as one of those all-the-way real friends we so desperately need in our lives to help keep us afloat. Emily, I’m wondering what about the show struck you are particularly resonant or particularly dull.

Emily Dreyfuss: Forever was a nightmare for me. A nightmare I couldn’t look away from, but one that gave me wrinkles, since I had to scrunch up my face in dread the whole time. The monotony of it, and the sheer meaningless of everything resonated—partially because it was so dull … and real. The show has a nihilism at the beginning that really spoke to me. And just as I was despairing, it gave me just enough hope to keep watching. Rudolph is wonderful and subtle in it, and I was transfixed every second she was on screen. (Keener is great, too, although Rudolph steals every scene.) A standalopne episode featuring two new characters gave the show back its humanity when it needed it the most, and also finally gave us a glimpse of the timeframe we were dealing with, which contextualized Keener and Rudolph’s characters’ decisions.

However, I have to be clear: I absolutely hated Fred Armisen for most of the season. I can’t decide if I hated his performance, or the character, but it wasn’t until nearly the very end when he finally broke out of his shell that I began to accept him. Until then it was hard to imagine Rudolph’s character loving him at all, and that sort of pulled me out of the show. I wanted to yell at her to please please please leave because clearly there was so much more her life could be if she wasn’t with him! But by the final episode, I was rooting for him. Did anyone else feel that way?

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Watercutter: Emily, in a word: YES. To the point that you and Jason were making, this is Rudolph’s show, 100 percent. Broadly, I like Armisen just fine, but I think after, what, eight seasons of Portlandia, I started to really feel like his boyfriend/husband characters were all a little one-note, and that note was always the same—and Oscar didn’t feel that different from many of them. He does get some depth by the end, but by then Rudolph has just run away with the show. It’s hard to make an existential-crisis comedy—especially one where the narrative is a will-they-won’t-they? about two people who are already together—but she just brought so much depth to it while also being incredibly funny. (Should we have a whole separate crosstalk about her cover of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It”? I truly thought every bit that could’ve been done using that song had already been done, but NOPE.) I know we just had the Emmys, but I’m adding her to my shortlist for next year.

Peter, thoughts? Should we talk about the twist(s)?

Peter Rubin: We definitely can—if someone’s read this far, they know what they’re getting into—but I’ll never pass up a chance to complain about Fred Armisen. Or at least about his character. Actually, many of them: one of Armisen’s great gifts (and conversely, his most galling crutch) is how he so openly and totally inhabits various versions of the Ineffectual Man comedy trope. His stint on SNL didn’t explore that ground very much, but his various Portlandia characters skew towards a type of passive-aggressive milquetoastery that makes my skin crawl. He plays it to comic effect on Big Mouth, as Nick’s hyper-evolved father, but on Forever Oscar is one of the most grating Armisenians yet: a blithely unaware manchild who’s all brain and no body.

That’s an important decision, because it helps frame the narrative even more as June’s journey—and it also makes the show’s second rug-pull all the more crushing. So, yeah, this is where we can say it: THEY’RE BOTH DEAD. Well, they both die: Oscar at the end of the first episode, in a ski accident that stands for me as the funniest moment of the show, and June at the end of the second, but only after she’s decided to open herself up to the promise of a life without Oscar. (A louder cosmic “womp womp” you’ve never heard.)

That’s it; the seal is broken. Let’s talk afterlife.

Watercutter: I will say, as a recovering Catholic school kid, I did like how blithely this show treated death and the afterlife. Like, what if it’s just more of the same, except in this world, you can throw yourself in front of a truck and be totally fine? I kind of liked that. It’s not Ghost; hell, it’s not even Ghost Cat (don’t look that up). It’s just a story about how people would change their behavior if they were given a second chance in a second life that didn’t look that different from their first. That conceit led to what I think is my favorite question of the series: Are you alive if you can’t die? Lots of the “formers” (the dead people in Forever lingo) talk about being from from all the BS fears and hangups and stresses of being “currents,” but dealing with those things is often the difference between living a life and being a zombie. Oscar and June still have conflicts to overcome—and maybe only saw those conflicts clearly after the other problems of life were erased—but at a certain point afterlife takes on a much different shape than life, which is what I think we see when Kase and June go to Oceanside and meet the people there. Their life seems fun; it could also be hell.

Dreyfuss: Yes! In Oceanside, existence is full of debauchery and the fierce embrace of now, but it’s just as hollow as the earlier version, the worst possible afterlife: the suburbs. That’s what makes it so funny, but it’s also what’s so upsetting. The disturbing thing about Forever is the notion that you’d have to spend it having the same boring conversation with the same person you’ve never been honest with and then mow the same lawn and never get to escape that monotony into the sweet embrace of death. Instead, you just wake up and do it all over again. I feel like the creator of this show must be a depressive, because in my darker moments that’s pretty much the hell I envision.

I’m an agnostic/atheist who only “believes” in the moments right before I scratch off a lottery ticket or I’m diving off a cliff, but I get it: Heaven is a wonderful idea because existence there is perfect, sublime. Even in the religious traditions where the afterlife is conceived merely as nonexistence it makes sense: From something to nothing! In this show, though, the afterlife is literally just the worst, most meaningless parts of life repeated over and over. And in that way, the message of the show is to live life to its fullest—because if you don’t, you’ll be doomed to work out your shit in eternity rather than a therapist’s chair.

Parham: What we’re supposed to believe is the most surprising fact about Forever—Oscar and June navigating the afterlife in some manicured, suburban purgatory—is, for me, its least interesting play. It’s a neat trick, sure, but a TV trope that is becoming more mainstream with the medium’s current gold rush. Naturally, Forever has drawn the most comparisons to NBC’s post-life comedy The Good Place because it tackles similar moral hurdles with essentially the same dilemma infused into its marrow: Can people change? The thing is, Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Co. are consumed with becoming “better” people—on the outside, at least—for the wrong reasons. They’re not really concerned with self-improvement so much as they just don’t want to be in the Good Place anymore (spoiler: The Good Place is actually hell).

I hate that Forever has been overshadowed by The Good Place as the superior afterlife-com mostly because they are operating on different frequencies: descent versus ascent. One is occupied with philosophical descent—the characters on The Good Place, motivated by the wrong intentions, actually plummet further as they try to escape, whereas June wants to remake herself into someone new, to ascend her former self. June’s intentions feel more pure, and earned, which makes her break from Oscar less catastrophic. She may look selfish, but there’s more richness in her character arc because she’s spurred by the right reasons. She genuinely wants to change, to rid herself of the stifling monotony of being the wholesome, regular Old June. She wants to break bad. It’s why free-spirited Kase feels like a reprieve—for her, for the viewer, for the unhurried rhythms of the show. Still, it’s the show’s ending that weirdly becomes its most surprising feat and most damning fiction: Oscar and June reunite and attempt to forge a new future elsewhere. But the message is evident: people don’t change. You are you—in life and in death. What’s scarier than that?


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