Note: This article discusses plot points from the series finale of Review, which you really should see.
“What kind of a universe would be cruel enough to allow Review to be canceled right after I chose it over my family?” Andy Daly’s Forrest MacNeil asks at the conclusion of the Comedy Central show, a question he asks, with typical merry blitheness, as a rhetorical shrug, convinced that all the horrors currently befalling him are just for the sake of creating good television. Over three seasons, Daly’s unflappable, affable crash test dummy endured all manner of this cruelty both voluntarily and enthusiastically, believing that such suffering was all just part of his job as a professional “life critic.” And as the show wrapped its third and final season, Forrest is given yet another chance to escape that relentless cycle of self-imposed abuse—to simply accept his ex-wife Suzanne’s (Jessica St. Clair) challenge to regain some semblance of the life he’d systematically torn apart—only to veto it, staying the course of the mission that has, twice in the same episode, once again come very close to killing him.
Of course he refused. From the very beginning of the series (minus the pilot, which made him out to be more of a psychopath), Forrest’s faith in his greater purpose has been his tragic flaw. And as it concludes, this toxic combination of arrogance and idiocy leaves him stranded, alone and oblivious. He’s even robbed of the monumentally stupid career for which he’s sacrificed everything, ignorantly doling out stars while critiquing his still-fathomless rock bottom with a chipper grin. Mercifully, the audience is spared the sight of the cameras pulling back to reveal Forrest is delivering his closing monologue to an empty studio. Still, it’s implied—and it’s a serious gut-punch.
As endings to comedy series go, Review’s has few equals in terms of bleakness. You’d have to look to something like “Goodbyeee,” the legendary finale of Blackadder Goes Forth: There, as in Review, you watch as its main characters hurtle toward their certain doom, simply because they’re told to. But there, at least, there is the sentimental grace note, that moving dissolve to a field of poppies that allows us to process what we’ve just seen and gives some meaning to their seemingly pointless sacrifice. Review just concludes like any other episode, with Forrest dimly plowing ahead, unaware that his life is well and truly over this time—and there is no one there, least of all the viewer, left to plead with him to finally wake up. It’s a fitting conclusion to what is one of the darkest comedies ever seen on television.
It’s telling that we have to reach out to British TV to find a point of comparison for just how dark Review truly is, just as it’s telling that, in discussing the possible future of Forrest MacNeil with The A.V. Club, Daly brought up Steve Coogan’s similarly egotistical and hapless Alan Partridge as a model he’d like to follow were that to ever happen. (Please, please let that happen.) After all, the U.K. has had a near-monopoly on this kind of gallows humor pretty much since Jonathan Swift casually suggested the poor try letting the rich eat their babies. (Baby-eating is, alas, one of the few experiences Forrest never got to try.)
British sitcoms have long been rife with selfish, stupid people behaving badly, falling victim to tragedies both capricious and earned, then often simply dying in explosions, just for laughs. A lot has been written on the difference between British and American humor over the years, but the thesis statement is always that British people naturally expect life to suck until the sweet relief of death, while Americans have been raised to believe that hardships are something that can be—that will be—overcome, so long as we believe in ourselves. We demand happy endings, even though, let’s face it, we rarely earn them. As Louis CK—whose comedy feels much closer to that curmudgeonly British outlook (thus occasionally leaving U.K. critics wondering what the big deal is)—says in one of his most oft-referenced routines, “Why the fuck would anything nice ever happen? What are you, stupid?”
CK’s Louie is often cited as evidence that those British and American sensibilities are merging, and indeed, U.S. comedies have gotten a lot darker of late, far more so than when The Office’s David Brent—a bloviating, petty, narcissistic prick—was adapted into Steve Carell’s buffoonish, yet generally pitiable Michael Scott. These days, TV is overrun with comedies led by selfish, unlovable characters doing shitty things (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, You’re The Worst, Difficult People, Girls, Veep, etc. etc.) and suffused in melancholy and perpetual existential dissatisfaction (Girls again; pretty much everything on FX, Netflix, and Amazon).
But even among today’s crop of only mostly funny dramedies, Review is unique in just how far it was willing to go to mine genuinely horrifying things for laughs, then refuse to soften the blow with some sort of reset—or even the smallest moment of redemption. To name some examples from animation, one of the places on American TV where such darkness is allowed to flow more freely, South Park’s Eric Cartman might force some kid to eat his parents, but it’s all pretty much forgotten by next week’s misadventure. BoJack Horseman might venture into some unflinching, supremely morbid territory itself, but it’s all part of the character’s slow journey toward bettering himself.
On Review, every terrible decision Forrest makes has lasting repercussions, creating a trail of destruction that accumulates with each passing week like a garbage flotilla of terrible decisions. And besides, none of these supposedly “dark” comedies ever had a moment as pitch-black as the time Forrest seduces a grieving widow, then stands there naked while she clutches her husband’s ashes and bawls. Even Jonathan Swift would probably say, “Fucking yeesh, man.”
In this way, Review differed even from the show it was based on, the Australian series Review With Myles Barlow. That series derived much of its humor from the fact that Phil Lloyd’s life critic approached his job with a cold professionalism, eschewing any emotion that might otherwise get in the way of, say, killing a man. And fortunately for Myles, the show echoes this detachment by rebooting him to a complete blank slate at the end of every episode, respawning like a Grand Theft Auto character to run amok anew.
By contrast, most of Review’s comedy stems from the fact that Forrest does feel emotion, and is often overwhelmed by it. These ever-present glimmers of a conscience to be grappled with are what makes the traumas he endures—and causes—by choosing to ignore them far more lasting, both psychologically and physically. Early on in the show, Forrest gets divorced for a challenge and stays that way, with Suzanne’s confusion and frustration with Forrest’s inability to just snap out of it and come home providing the tragic through-line of the entire series. By the third season, his body is scarred with bullet holes, knife cuts, and even arrow wounds from the many times he’s put his own life on the line. And yet, despite these many hard-won lessons, Forrest never actually learns anything.
In the second season episode “Happiness, Pillow Fight, Imaginary Friend,” in one of the most devastating moments of the show, Forrest’s father sits with him and lays out a litany of the disasters he’s caused that saw him burning down the family house, getting marooned at sea, nearly dying of said bullet and arrow wounds (inflicted by his father at Forrest’s insistence), and finally, killing someone. “Through it all, I told myself, ‘Forrest is a good boy, and he always has been,’” he says. “But now a man is dead and you’re charged with killing him. What are your values, son? Did I raise you to have values where it’s okay to kill somebody? I hope not.” Yet even as his father decides that, for his own safety, he has to turn his back on his son, it takes the murder of Forrest’s imaginary friend, taken on at the behest of the show, for Forrest to break down over “the utter pointlessness and cruelty of everything that my life had become.”
That question—of what Forrest actually believes in, and whether there is any sort of moral compass that will eventually steer him away from the rocks he keeps willfully battering against—becomes the running quandary at the center of the series. It’s made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that Forrest does seem like a good boy (mostly by dint of Daly’s cheerful, lovably buttoned-up performance), yet he repeatedly puts his faith in a greater power that’s determined to see him inflicting and experiencing unimaginable pain. As Daly told The A.V. Club, “We talked a lot about Job in our writers’ room” during the making of this season especially, as Forrest rebounds from his near-certain death at the end of last season, convinced that God had spared him in order to continue his very important work.
But much as Job loses everything and finds himself covered in boils, just so God can win an argument, Forrest’s suffering is purely for someone else’s entertainment. In Review, “God” takes the form of Forrest’s producer Grant (James Urbaniak), who repeatedly, cunningly, passive-aggressively tests Forrest’s loyalty, all because he knows his torture is good for ratings. More indirectly, it’s heard in the viewers who send in their review requests, those trolling, whispering voices who tell him to do ghastly things for their amusement under the cloak of social media anonymity. There’s a reason why one of the prevailing fan theories throughout the series’ run was that Forrest was actually trapped in Purgatory, undergoing—and failing—moral tests in an endless loop, until he finally makes the decision to escape.
But even before the final season premiered, Daly shot down that theory. Forrest’s torment is entirely more earthbound and recognizable—one sadly reflective of the human condition in its blinkered devotion to our own self-determined duties and codes, often at the expense of loved ones, as well as our misguided belief that we simply don’t have a choice when we so often do, and our refusal to admit culpability in our own misery. Repeatedly, Forrest is undone by his vanity and his conviction that he’s building some sort of legacy, as well his unflagging, Andy Daly-ish optimism that this greater power determining his direction couldn’t possibly be malevolent. It’s what makes the end of the show so profoundly sad in a way not even dared by the Bible; even Job was rewarded with a bunch of pretty daughters, after all.
Instead, Forrest walks away with nothing to show for it, save for the cold comfort that, as his assistant tells him, he “got out of this dumb show alive.” He’s denied even the satisfaction of knowing that it all meant something. As he admits to his ex-wife earlier in the episode, “There is nothing that I could have possibly shared with the world” about undergoing obviously awful experiences that would have justified his losing everything. Yet, like most of his epiphanies, it’s fleeting and fruitless. And once again, it’s instantly undone by Grant’s slightest taunting of his pride. As the series ends, the irony of that central query posed at the beginning every episode (“Life: It’s literally all we have. But is it any good?”) becomes clear. Forrest has always been too caught up in reviewing life to actually live it. And now it’s over.
It’s heady stuff—a heartrending, absurdist morality play about the evil that men do to themselves that any serious French existentialist or Irish dramatist would be proud of, albeit one where a guy eats pancakes until he barfs. When Forrest, upon hearing of his show’s cancellation from Grant, threatens to kill himself, it sounds like a natural conclusion. Were this one of those aforementioned Irish dramas, Review would surely end with Forrest putting a gun to his head and the stage lights cutting out just as we hear the bang. Instead, the show somehow conjures an ending that’s even darker than that. Life goes on for Forrest MacNeil, and it goes on without him, indifferent to whether he thinks it’s any “good.” And we have to leave him now, still deep inside the delusion that it’s all because of the random whims of the universe, that he has no choice in determining his own fate. It’s the great cosmic joke that’s played on all of us, and like everything about Review, it’s both hilarious and harrowing. Five stars.