Despite his bravado about his fated place in the universe, it doesn’t take much to send Forrest MacNeil’s world topsy-turvy. “Co-host, Ass-slap, Helen Keller, Forgiveness” does it several times with breathtaking ease. But the things that should send Forrest reeling are never the things that do send him reeling.
The first reversal is both obvious and deeply symbolic. When A.J. takes over as host so Forrest can review what it’s like to be a co-host, he’s left quite literally in the dark. The lights go down, the crew bursts into activity, and Forrest just stands there, lost. Looking around A.J.’s cheerful, happy dressing room, Forrest remarks on what a small role the show plays in her life. From that, he doesn’t conclude that her life is enviably full, but that it’s empty and insignificant—because without Review propping him up, Forrest is empty and insignificant. He’s a man who’s sacrificed layer after layer of himself in pursuit of a life’s work that is itself utterly vacant.
Immersing himself in A.J.’s daily life, Forrest could learn from her surroundings—her many friends, her family photos, her brushes with celebrity, the books and magazines she takes interest in. But he doesn’t. Or he could learn from A.J.’s thoughtful navigation of her assignment, “What’s it like to slap a stranger’s ass?” But he doesn’t. He doesn’t even listen. As A.J.’s voiceover narrates her review, Forrest’s voiceover overlaps, narrating his.
Unlike Forrest, who worries chiefly about the mechanics of achieving his tasks, A.J. ponders the meaning of her seemingly simple assignment. Is it exploitative to slap an unwitting stranger on the ass? Is it disrespectful of her boyfriend? Would the impropriety be different if she slaps a woman or a man? “Thinking about others instead of just myself allowed me to learn something I will never forget,” she concludes, revealing that she decided not to slap a stranger’s ass.
In the face of this heresy, Forrest loses his habitual crisp diction and his air of critical distance. “Ya didn’t do it, how ya gonna give it stars?” he blurts out to A.J.’s smiling indifference.
Megan Stevenson plays this segment with careful balance, never reveling in Forrest’s demotion. A.J.’s thoughtful deliberation might be the the result of watching Forrest destroy himself and those around him, but it might just as easily be her fundamental nature guiding her. There’s no telling, because A.J. doesn’t deride Forrest or even make reference to his past misjudgments. Her vastly different approach, with concern for the well-being of all involved paramount, speaks for itself as she concludes, “Thinking about others instead of just myself allowed me to learn something I will never forget.” It’s a staggering rejection of Forrest’s worldview, as potentially destabilizing as Mrs. Greenfield’s “Six is greater than five!”
Back in what he insists is his rightful place as host of Review, Forrest plunges into his next assignment with ill-advised haste. “What is it like to be Helen Keller?” asks a mother/sideshow manager eager to show her son how easy he has it. “As I set out on this journey,” Forrest’s voiceover narrates, “I hoped to foster a greater understanding of disabilities by thoughtfully and sensitively exploring the experience of being Helen Keller.”
“For centuries, this woman had been the butt of tasteless jokes. That would end today.”
Describing his fruitless efforts to communicate, Forrest “tried everything I imagined Helen must have tried: clapping, charades-style clues, guttural moaning. Surely one of these tools commonly used by the disabled would do the trick.” Like “Falsely Accused, Sleep With Your Teacher, Little Person,” “Co-host, Ass-slap, Helen Keller, Forgiveness” makes fun not of the challenges faced by a differently abled person, but of Forrest’s insulting attempts to recreate their challenges in his own life. He reduces Helen Keller to her physical limitations, and he fails to consider (or even briefly educate himself on) the strategies she and others use to overcome challenges.
Trying to predict what will happen in any given episode of Review is a fool’s game. The writers (“Co-host, Ass-slap, Helen Keller, Forgiveness” is credited to director and series co-developer Jeffrey Blitz) have a gift for making assignments collide with subsequent reviews, or with the consequences of previous ones, so that they add up to the cruelest possible outcome. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Forrest’s isolating stretch as Helen Keller would overlap with his day on the stand.
All three of Forrest’s reviews this week reveal his deepest failure: He doesn’t consider other people as people. Of his job as co-host, Forrest says, “I’d never thought about what A.J. does or ever spoken to her about her duties, if in fact she has duties. I had no idea.” He‘s not humbled or embarrassed to realize this; if anything, it confirms his belief that his existence is significant and hers is “trivial.” When he’s asked what it’s like to ”be Helen Keller,” Forrest doesn’t consider her accomplishments, her writings, or inner life, but only her most obvious limitations, and he takes off willy-nilly (not Willy Nilly) without bothering to learn more about her life or the accommodations that allowed her to do such remarkable work. Instead, with Josh and Tina’s help, he creates a caricature of Helen Keller, a bumbling, moaning punchline in faux-Victorian garb and a HelKelmet cutting off Forrest’s sight and hearing.
And when Forrest is asked, “What is forgiveness?” he heads straight to Suzanne, for all the wrong reasons. I said it’s a fool’s game to predict events on this show, and I meant it. Last week, I said I wouldn’t be surprised if Suzanne only appears from behind a door or a pane of glass; this week, she opens that door.
And immediately regrets it.
Forrest thinks he’s in a position to bestow forgiveness on his ex-wife. What else could Forrest possibly allow himself to imagine? Suzanne rejects his empty forgiveness (which he only offers to fulfill an assignment) and his whole vacuous existence: “You are not a person. You are a malfunctioning robot. And it’s sad, Forrest, because you used to be a person. You used to do things because you wanted to do them.”
“Co-host, Ass-slap, Helen Keller, Forgiveness” exposes more explicitly than any previous episode Forrest‘s inability to see anyone else as a full, rounded person worthy of consideration or protection from his destructive life’s work. The irony, and the tragedy, is that Forrest is the one who is no longer truly a person. He was once a man with a happy family life, a strong marriage, a comfortable home, and some dearly held principles. One by one, those connections and convictions are pared away. Review’s brutal, heedless demands erode Forrest MacNeil, layer by layer, until he’s little more than an automaton. Tragically, he’s not quite an automaton. He can still feel pain… and hope.
- Forrest’s ratings: co-host, half a star; Helen Keller, five stars; forgiveness, four stars.
- A.J.’s rating: ass-slap, didn’t do it. (You might quibble that “How cares how many stars?” is A.J.’s rating, but with punctiliousness, I’ll point out that “didn’t do it” appears on-screen in place of the conventional star rating.)
- Jessica St. Clair gives bittersweet depth to the simple affirmative, “Yes, he did,” when Daisy asks her under oath whether her ex-husband ever brought her flowers or paid her compliments.
- Forrest’s acquittal played off as an afterthought is one of Review’s darkest jokes. “He said it’s almost impossible to convict someone who looks like me for using a gun in America? I don’t know what he means.”
- Appropriately, Joe Gieb, who plays the fellow tenant Forrest offends in “Little Person,” briefly appears in “Helen Keller,” getting manhandled by Forrest in the elevator.
- Comedy Central isn’t announcing how many episodes will constitute this final shortened season of Review, but their schedule lists another episode next week. Its title is “Cryogenics, Lightning, Last Review.” Make of that what you will.