While this review will be circumspect about Flaked, there are unavoidable suggestions of plot elements that would be better read after watching the series. For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details not talked about in this review, visit the spoiler space.
“I came to Venice by accident. Let me reframe that—I came to Venice because of an accident.” The voice is familiar, Will Arnett’s gravelly baritone leading us into Flaked, his new Netflix series. Speaking at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Arnett’s Chip speaks with wry sincerity about the fatal drunk driving accident that changed his life—and ended someone else’s—10 year’s earlier, that signature mellifluous growl urging his fellow attendees to follow his example. The receptive Venice, California audience nods and watches his practiced performance with understanding, receptive eyes as Chip confesses, “It taught me to be humble, to be honest. To be brutally humble. About who I am and what I’ve done,” before he concludes, “life must be lived forward but can only be understood backwards.”
Flaked, co-created by Arnett and The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret writer Mark Chappell (and executive produced by Arnett’s Arrested Development boss Mitch Hurwitz) can, in a sense, be understood best backward, too. (And here, readers who haven’t seen the show are redirected back to the spoiler space above—fair warning.) For fully the first half of this eight-episode series, Flaked presents itself as another entry in the current crop of Netflix dramedies where traditionally comic actors are given the freedom to explore their more serious sides playing a more soulful, self-lacerating version of their comedy personas. Chip is Gob Bluth with self-awareness and secrets, a 40-ish Venice fixture who (barely) runs his hole-in-the-wall stool store (he casually displays his one runner-up design award to justify the place’s existence) while trotting out his tragic backstory in order to bed as many of the town’s impressionable and vulnerable women (most of them fellow AA members) as humanly possible, and manipulate his best friend, Dennis (Primer’s David Sullivan), into allowing him to stay in the main house of their overgrown residence while the ever-obliging Dennis lives in the guest quarters.
Unlike, say, Master Of None, Love, or, progenitor of the form, FX’s Louie, Flaked is more plot-driven, although it doesn’t seem that that will be the case for the first half of the season. There, Flaked plays out very much like a dour Californication, with arrested beach bum Chip riding his handlebar-basket bicycle around town, playing paddle ball, cadging free coffees from a young AA friend he’s supposedly counseling, and having detached, ambivalent sex with much younger musician not-girlfriend Kara (Lina Esco), all while setting his heavy-lidded sights on London, the fetching new waitress in town (Ruth Kearney), even though Dennis is smitten with her. His store, which has been in improbable business for a decade, forms Chip’s identity and his escape valve, always a ready bargaining chip to placate those fed up with Chip’s incessant weaseling by being offered up as rehearsal or meeting space.
Arnett slouches into the role easily. Even his broadest characters (Gob, Devon Banks) have carried a healthy helping of shame and self-loathing alongside their outward bluster, and Chip’s daily routine of aimless moping and skillful manipulation allows Arnett to play up the pathos, his endless selfishness seeing him repeatedly practice his downcast, sheepish “I’m sorry” again and again as he continually lets down everyone around him. He’s good at it, but, apart from his confrontations with annoying stoner friend Cooler (George Basil) or new AA acquaintance Topher (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, playing up the more unlikable aspects of his usual girl-crazy nerd character), Arnett’s talents for acerbic putdowns are largely muted.
There’s nothing inherently unwelcome about another portrait of a womanizing, self-hating middle-aged manchild in theory. “No one says sorry better than a drunk,” says Kara at one point, as she and Dennis commiserate about Chip’s latest mini-betrayal. “They get so much practice, I guess.” But for all of Arnett’s wet-eyed appeal (and for all the heavy lifting done by Stephen Malkmus’ score of on-the-nose indie rock), Flaked fails to make the case that Chip’s self-pitying assholery is unique enough to carry an entire series. When the plot finally kicks in in the back half of the season, the unexpected shift in tone is intended to show how Chip’s apparently pointless life is the result of outside forces, but the series of twists (one clumsily telegraphed, the other a bit less so) don’t so much fill out the character as underscore how thin he was in the first place.
If, as Chip stated, Flaked (and Chip himself) is to be understood backward, these revelations—hidden in the sun-drenched jumble of characters like Mark Boone Jr.’s spacey but menacing landlord and Heather Graham’s movie star former wife—are Arnett and Chappell’s retroactive attempt to prop up their flimsy character study with the bones of a thriller plot of sorts. Unfortunately, while the narrative ambition is certainly admirable, in practice, it strands the actors. Arnett comes off best, naturally—he’s pretty riveting when confronted with one unexpected revelation—although Sullivan brings some appealing edge to perpetual sidekick Dennis, whose rescue from alcoholism at the hands of Chip 10 years before accounts for the amount of crap he’s put up with since. But Esco and especially Kearney suffer—in the manner of female characters stuck in stories of belated male enlightenment everywhere—from being largely mediums of exchange between the boys. (London almost literally in one case intended to show how Chip’s not such a bad guy after all.) Indeed, after spending its first four episodes building a case against Chip’s fecklessness, Flaked clumsily spends the last four falling over itself to let him off the hook.
When cop friend George (played with gusto by the ever-welcome Robert Wisdom) attempts to steer a wavering Chip into a difficult choice late in the series, he exhorts, “You’re a good man, whether or not you want to admit it, but I know you are. I’ve seen you stick your hand out to help other people.” The thing is, we haven’t seen that—Chip’s rehearsed AA glad-handing (“You’ve got a serious platitude problem,” says Dennis early on) is only ever seen in service of his own agenda—usually either getting laid or extricating himself from relationships after having done so. Arnett does yeoman work in selling Chip’s inner turmoil—most episodes can be counted on for a lingering shot of him staring sadly (into the night, at the ceiling, at the wood of a door that’s been slammed in his face). And while his final big moment, reframing his initial AA confession in front of a pivotal town meeting, is intended to portray Chip’s betrayal of himself, Flaked fails to convince us that his fall is of much weight at all.