In Review, Forrest tries to capture the vast range of human experience, reducing each of life’s adventures to a rating and a handful of words. “Buried Alive, 6 Star Review, Public Speaking” focuses on the power of words, their power to inspire, to forge connection, to comfort, and to devastate.

For his first assignment, Forrest is buried alive, a “terrifying undertaking.” All the action of this segment is laid out to make the outcome both ghastly and cozily predictable. Forrest listens intently to the sounds of Josh and Tina shoveling dirt onto his furtive grave, anticipating that the only thing worse will be the moment when they stop. (“Yup,” he confirms seconds later, “that is more terrifying.”) Only Josh knows where he’s buried, and Josh is, Forrest reflects ruefully, “the stupidest person I know.” The groundskeeper bribed for nighttime access to the graveyard has had the fear of zombies instilled in him by “meth-head idiots.” Everything is neatly telegraphed.

But the genius of Review isn’t the horror of the experience; it’s the tension between the simulacrum of life that is Forrest’s assignment and Forrest’s actual life. He repeatedly describes being buried alive as “terrifying,” but lying alone in a grave for 24 hours isn’t the most terrifying experience in store for him. What truly terrifies Forrest is Suzanne’s phone call. He answers it, still in the grave but bursting with hope. “Perhaps she had finally come to her senses. Maybe she was even willing to give us another chance,” he imagines. But his hopes are buried in an instant. Suzanne is marrying Joe Dale, Jr.

Though Forrest is moderately claustrophobic, it’s not the tightness of the casket or the pile of dirt atop it that’s smothering him; it’s the terrible sense of loss, the absence of hope. “Before that phone call, I felt completely out of my element in this coffin. Now, I felt right at home.” Yet, when Josh admits he’s lost track of the gravesite, Forrest’s will to live comes roaring back. He smashes through the coffin, clawing out of his makeshift grave “to face what was left of my life, and triumph”—and is immediately felled by the shovel-wielding groundskeeper, who’s mistaken him for a zombie.

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Forrest’s next review—sorry, his next assessment—seems destined to give him a reprieve from the mental, emotional, and physical torments of being buried alive, and of losing his true love to a chronic philanderer. Instead, it threatens to topple his worldview. A viewer asks what it’s like to give a six-star rating, a question that sends Forrest reeling. “No, I can’t do that. I mean, if the scale can change, then anything can change, and then none of this means anything at all.”

“And then none of this means anything at all” is Forrest’s greatest fear, the thing he repudiates above all else, and the idea Review has been flirting with all along. In “Cult, Perfect Body,” Forrest builds a cult on the principle of the five-star rating and is unseated only when Mrs. Greenfield sweeps in with her six-star ranking. To challenge the five-star rating is to challenge to Forrest’s belief system. And if Review means nothing, then the sacrifices Forrest has made—his home, his wife, his child, his father-in-law, his car, his father’s homes, the constant wounds to his body—are in vain.

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Rather than forsake Review’s formula, Forrest creates Assess, a show within a show (and Andy Daly creates a show within a show within a show) “expressly for the purpose of giving something six stars”—and when Assess fails him, or when he fails Assess, he creates Evaluate. This is the delights and agonies of Review in microcosm, with one assignment to eat the best ice cream in town and another to be kicked in the balls.

The first assessment seems like a winner: an artisanal ice cream cone, leisurely enjoyed on a pleasant day in the park amid the sound of birdsong and children playing. But even a literal walk in the park isn’t a walk in the park for Forrest MacNeil. An errant drip of chocolate on his shirt mars his joy, and Forrest—who is an admirable stickler in his way—cannot give the experience a full six stars.

I said last week that Review is Andy Daly’s Guernica of screams; Megan Stevenson is weaving a Bayeux Tapestry of weary double-takes, grimaces, and glances. Only rarely does A.J., the cheerful sidekick, get to express a fully realized thought, but her reactions play across her face as intensely as a silent-movie star’s.

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A.J.’s motivations are less clear than her expressions. There’s been speculation in the comments that she’s scheming for Forrest’s job, or rejoicing in his failures, but that’s hard to reconcile with her chagrin at his inability to take perfect pleasure in an ice cream cone or her panic at having to kick him in the balls for a second time. Whatever her inner thoughts, it seems fair to say that A.J. knows what Forrest doesn’t: Moving around props and changing the title doesn’t make a new show. That’s just a few trappings and a word here or there. The core remains the same, and that core is meaningless.

Of his six-star assessment—I’m sorry, evaluation–of getting kicked in the balls (twice), Forrest ponders, “Giving something six stars could be a thrilling experience if done as an expression of highest approval. But when done in a system in which there is no other choice, it is remarkably unremarkable.” This comes perilously close to examining the arbitrary structure of Review itself, and given Forrest’s devotion to the show, such scrutiny could collapse his entire philosophy of life. The star ratings he gives to experiences, good and bad, are erratic, even capricious, and his critiques in the cool distance of aftermath never illustrate the actual experience as clearly as they do his unexamined biases and needs. His words are often heartfelt, but misplaced.

That’s true of the speech he gives at Suzanne and Joe’s rehearsal dinner, no matter which version we consider. Forrest writes “a vicious, destructive act of character assassination” designed to derail the wedding, but seeing Suzanne’s delight, he takes to heart his late father-in-law’s toast at his own wedding and remembers his pledge to make Suzanne happy. He shares his regrets at the rehearsal dinner:

“When I married Suzanne, it was my priority in life to keep her happy, but I let other things come first. I don’t know why I did that. That was stupid. But I still feel that it’s my job to keep her happy, which is why I have something that I need to say. I’ve been watching you guys and… you’re happy, you’re really happy. You’re obviously really happy. So my mission is accomplished, basically.”

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Considering the circumstances (and ignoring Suzanne’s pleas that he not speak at all), this is both graceful and generous. It would be genuinely touching if he didn’t undo it immediately and at length, reminiscing about the high points of the MacNeils’ marriage, confessing his loneliness, proposing marriage to his ex-wife on the eve of her remarriage, and finally wrestling with the groom in the banquet room floor. Forrest’s voiceover intones solemnly, “Words have power to move people, sometimes in positive ways, sometimes in very negative ways. Public speakers must be prepared for that. And they sometimes have to back up their words with force,” as he crawls over to bite Joe on the shin.

“And if that doesn’t work, there are always more words,” his voiceover continues, and Forrest reclaims the microphone to stun Suzanne—and all her guests—with the revelation that Joe is a fraud and a cheater, she is a dupe, and Forrest arranged their meeting in the first place. “I was catfishing you, Suzanne,” he tells her with relish, and with enough details to prove his words true.

Andy Daly, Jessica St. Clair (Comedy Central)

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When she first allows him to stay at the rehearsal dinner, Suzanne begs Forrest, “Just don’t be yourself. Just be somebody different.” But that’s been the problem all along: He’s been trying, and failing, to be someone else, to be an everyman. He’s abdicated his life to Review, skewed the experiences with his own unconscious contortions, then misinterpreted their meaning in his portentous recaps. In this way, Review deftly skewers the act of criticism itself, ruminating on the impossibility of evaluating any piece of art or culture in isolation. The review always reflects on the reviewer, no matter how objective they strive to be.

Words are important, and so are actions. Put together, they are—as Forrest would say—literally all we have to convey our thoughts, our goals, and our values to the world, and to those we love. In “Buried Alive, 6 Star Review, Public Speaking,” Forrest is on the cusp of understanding that his actions aren’t consistent with his words, and that neither is consistent with his intentions, with his promises, or with the person he wants to be. Over and over, he approaches the truth that the person he is for the sake of Review isn’t the person he wants to be, and over and over, he steps back from that realization.

Stray observations

  • Forrest’s reviews: being buried alive, half a star; giving something six stars, one star (having the best ice cream in town, five and a half stars; getting kicked in the balls, six stars); public speaking, four and a half stars.
  • Watching Andy Daly’s eyes after Suzanne’s call cuts out, I’m reminded he’s not only a great comic actor; he’s a great actor, period.
  • “Each bite was a tiny scoop of heaven. But…”
  • “Oh, no. That makes me realize that you only kicked me in the left testicle, and that [bleep]ing old lady wants to know what it’s like to get kicked in both balls. Plural.” Like I said, he’s a stickler in his way.
  • Jack closes his wedding speech, “May you two have many children, who will likely be the first generation to live in space.” Jack got to die in space (okay, sticklers, on the way to space), so… that counts for something, right?
  • As he refuses to relinquish the microphone, the way Andy Daly and Jessica St. Clair mirror their gestures conveys a deeper sense of intimacy than most shows can create in minutes of dialogue.

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