“Is he going to do it?”

That’s the central question of Review, never more ominous than in “Murder, Magic 8 Ball, Procrastination.” A viewer wonders, “What would it be like to kill a person?” and the show takes a beat before revealing that finally Forrest MacNeil has been assigned a task he cannot countenance.

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Grant joins Forrest onstage to ask not once, not twice, but three times, “Are you certain you wish to veto this review?” Affirming thrice, Forrest breaks the glass case, unfurls a scroll, and declares the first veto enacted. A staff member scurries to destroy the scroll (and Forrest’s safety glasses). It’s a solemn proceeding, and a conspicuously ceremonious one. Is the ceremony meaningful? Concentrate and ask again.

Sacrificing a veto to escape a randomly assigned task, Forrest is free to plunge into a day of randomly assigned tasks. “Living life by the Magic 8-Ball, that I will do! It might actually be fun.” Will it? Outlook not so good.

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Not wanting anyone “to think I’m weird,” he hides the fortune-telling novelty toy in a fanny pack, and spends the day jostling his groin while onlookers edge away. (Before our international readers bubble over with delight or shock or shocked delight, the word fanny doesn’t mean that over here; fanny pack is the equivalent of bum bag, and I’m just digging this hole deeper, aren’t I?) He delegates every decision to the Magic 8 Ball, asking whether to use the restroom (no), chase a squirrel (yes), or have a hot dog (no). He doesn’t even cross the street without permission.

Forrest aims increasingly plaintive requests toward the vicinity of his crotch as it leads him from pleasure to dejection to terror. First, the Magic 8 Ball steers him “far outside the zip code where I feel most comfortable.” (Forrest knows all the zip codes!) Then it prevents him from answering Suzanne’s long-awaited call. When he’s finally permitted him to take her call, he can’t speak from the heart; instead, he delivers the 8 Ball’s vague negatives verbatim, alienating his ex-wife even more.

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Does the Magic 8 Ball have worse in store? It is decidedly so. Forrest wanders into a squabble over a petty drug debt and cannot walk away. As he watches a drug dealer kick his victim into unconsciousness, lingers into the night as police and EMTs arrive, and lets the police set free the attacker on his word, Forrest begs the 8 Ball, “Can I please, please go somewhere safe?”

Will this end badly? You may rely on it.

Like the challenge that led to Assess and Evaluate, “Magic 8 Ball” captures and critiques the essence of Review. Forrest can’t see the consonance between obeying the Magic 8 Ball and obeying Review. In his review, Forrest disavows “arbitrarily made choices,” because “it’s always better to captain one’s own ship on gut instinct. If I crash into the rocks of life, I want it to be because I steer the ship there myself.”

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Forrest both does and doesn’t steer his own ship. Surrendering choices to the Magic 8 Ball, his voiceover muses, “The more I embrace the randomness of life, the more meaningful even the smallest decisions seem to be.” Then the shot widens to show he’s asking to share his meal not with the homeless person in the background, but with the squirrel in his path. Forrest doesn’t see that even when he submits to the 8 Ball’s arbitrary yes or no answers, he’s still choosing the scope of his questions, and therefore deciding the sphere of action, if not the outcome.

This cognitive dissonance is characteristic of Review. Forrest cannot or will not face his own complicity in the disasters around him, how his devotion to his self-appointed duty often puts catastrophe in motion, or the clash between his moral and familial obligations and his practical obligations. In this way, Forrest MacNeil is all of us, sometimes sacrificing our noble intentions to practical needs or selfish desires.

Nowhere does that clash of responsibilities and morals become clearer than in the second request from Gina of Toluca Lake. Not sure if her first message was sent, she asks again: “What’s it like to kill a person?” Because he’s used both his vetoes (the second on a question he deemed logically impossible, “What’s it like to procrastinate?”), Forrest must honor her request or break with the principles of Review.

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In “Murder, Magic 8 Ball, Procrastination,” Grant’s usual inextricable mixture of encouragement and manipulation escalates to naked connivance. His speech, approved by Review’s legal counsel (Bruno Oliver) and punctuated by Forrest’s stream of affirmatives, is breathtakingly disingenuous, and James Urbaniak delivers it with Machiavellian cunning:

“I just wanted to make our position very clear: You should not commit a murder for the show. Period.”

“We don’t care that it might have been groundbreaking, award-winning television that people might have talked about for years. None of that matters. We’re talking about a human life.”

“Even if that means fading into obscurity, there is no one whose life is so worthless that you should do this. Even if by not doing it, that means that people eventually go ‘Oh, yeah, who was that guy back in the day? Frosty MacNell? He had a show where he barfed up pancakes?’”

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The lawyer adds, “And if you did do this thing, you would be doing it knowing that not only were you not told to by the show, you were expressly told not to do it.”

“Is he going to do it?”

Grant’s words coax Forrest into overcoming his moral and visceral horror of murder even as they lay out how little is at stake. Forrest commits to murdering a fellow human being explicitly to cement the reputation he esteems out of all rational perspective. Only the delicacy of the writing, and of Andy Daly’s portrayal, preserves sympathy for his predicament. He’s overcome with relief, then dawning wariness, understanding, winking collusion, and finally resignation, assenting as Grant spins his web: “Oh, okay… right… yeah, okay, I got it, I get it. So you’re telling me I have to do this.”

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“We have told him not to do it.”

It reflects well on Forrest, insofar as selecting a murder victim in cold blood can reflect well on a person, that he never considers murdering over personal grievances. He first visits the now-comatose victim of the alleyway beating, thinking a mercy-killing is “the least bad way to do this.” Ready to smother the stranger, his compassion and revulsion rise up, and he wails “I can’t do it! I can’t do it!” into the pillow he’s clutching.

Next, he prepares to kill Ray (Scott Menville), the drug dealer who beat his nameless victim to near-death, and again Forrest displays a combination of resolution, dread, and touching solicitude. Announcing, “I’m going to go in there and… do what I need to do with this gun, and—and I’m very, very frightened,” he adds to the camera operator, “I want you to keep a safe distance, okay?”

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But Ray welcomes Forrest as “my [bleep]ing guardian angel.” Forrest’s refusal to ID Ray spurred him to start over: to get sober, become a drug counselor for at-risk teens, and change his life for his son, Eric. “I have a son named Eric,” Forrest says, and his voiceover reflects, “In less than a minute, this monster who I had so easily condemned to death became a human to me, a man with a future and a right to go on living. I knew I could not do it.”

But in the cruelest twist of all, he can do it and he does do it. Finding Forrest’s microphone, Ray thinks himself betrayed by his protector, and he beats Forrest brutally, dragging him beyond the camera’s view. A gunshot blasts out, and Forrest flees, sobbing “There should have been another veto! There should have been another veto!”

The moment is as devastating as it is inevitable. After nearly two seasons of sacrificing his body, his home, his family, and his conscience to Review, Forrest resolves to eschew his self-imposed duty to save a life—and to salvage his own humanity. And then he is forced to kill anyhow. Ray’s attack could read as a narrative cop-out, a pretext for Forrest to kill a man while retaining the audience’s sympathy, but the show carefully portrays the weight of the act on Forrest, no matter how necessary. More importantly, Review is as unblinking in its tacit examination of Forrest’s complex moral and practical culpability, and the impossibility of escaping blame in the maelstrom that is Review (“Just so you know, the guy in the coma died, too”), as Forrest is in his denial.

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If Forrest were capable of contemplating his own culpability, he wouldn’t be here in the first place. Gina doesn’t ask “What’s it like to commit murder?” She asks “What’s it like to kill a person?” Going into space with his father-in-law Jack (Fred Willard), Forrest failed to perform the buddy-system harness check, and Jack hurtled to the roof of the shuttle, snapping his neck as they slipped the surly bonds of earth. Forrest brought Mrs. Greenfield to California, brought her into his cult, brought her to camp in his father’s meadow, and—much more directly—his steroid-fueled rampage brought on the volley of gunfire that culminated in her death. Forrest knows what it’s like to be instrumental in the death of another… but he might not know he knows.

Forrest’s rejection of responsibility runs deeper still. Concealing his murder weapon in the fanny pack is more than narrative neatness. In the world of Review, the Magic 8 Ball—and by extension, the randomness of Review itself—can become a tool of violence and mortality as surely as the gun does. Forrest’s more than willing to surrender to randomness; he’s comforted by it. He greets the assignment “as a relief,” praising “the iconic Magic 8 Ball with its mysterious triangle afloat in inky blue non-toxic realm” that has “provided advice and premonition to those adrift in the inky blue, often toxic waters of life.” Forrest doesn’t just comply with the unpredictable demands of Review. He yearns for the escape they offer from the burden of decisions.

Even Forrest’s cry as he runs from his crime hints at his complicity: Another veto would have saved him from this request, but not from the next one, or the next one, or the next one. Only Forrest can save himself from that, and only if he chooses to. We’re back to that core question: Is he going to do it? Reply hazy, try again.

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Stray observations

  • Forrest’s reviews: killing a person, veto; living life by the Magic 8-Ball, one star; procrastination, veto; killing a person (theoretically, he’s assuming), half a star.
  • “Can I just say? Sometimes you’re a little rigid on the rules.” A.J.’s right, and if Forrest took just a few minutes to consider his position, he could rate procrastination with a clear conscience. Procrastinating on making a decision, even one about procrastination, is procrastination.
  • I can’t be the only one who quailed when Forrest, determined to kill, met with his father.
  • “I’ve just returned from Walmart, where I purchased a gun and some ammunition and several impulse purchases. Who can resist a $2 lawnchair?”
  • Shin-biting appears to be Forrest’s go-to move.
  • “Ask me another question! Ask me a different question!” Forrest cries as Suzanne hangs up. That plea could be the motto of Review’s darkest episodes—and especially of “Murder, Magic 8 Ball, Procrastination.”
  • With two episodes left in the season, does Review hold further torments for Forrest MacNeil? All signs point to yes.

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