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Review reveals the show’s true villain in “Conspiracy Theory”

James Urbaniak, Andy Daly (Comedy Central/Danny Feld)
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Forrest frequently touts Review’s random selection process, but clearly the brilliance of Review is anything but random. The chaos of Forrest’s two seasons of misadventures isn’t chaotic at all. It’s carefully constructed down to the smallest detail. Like any zealot raving about a shadowy master plan, I have evidence to show you.


Review’s finale calls back to a tiny moment in the season two premiere. During Forrest’s word-recognition tests after his long coma, Marisa holds up a flashcard of an idyllic-looking scene. “Conspiracy,” Forrest says. She corrects him gently: “Bridge.”

“Conspiracy?” “Bridge.” (Allison Tolman, Andy Daly)

Conspiracy. Bridge. These are the essential elements of “Conspiracy Theory,” an episode of television that made me gasp and gave me gooseflesh even the second time through. Asked what it’s like to believe in a conspiracy theory, Forrest attends a meeting hosted by “a controversial author” (Matt Besser) unveiling secrets from the Illuminati causing tsunamis to the importance of inter-dimensional Bigfoot. But for Forrest, the seductive voice of conspiracy is closer to home. Well, not home; Forrest sleeps in his office, but “closer to office” doesn’t have the same ominous ring.

Forrest compiles a list of all his assignments. He’s never tallied them up before, and he’s shocked to see he’s almost died on assignment 11 times. “Maybe someone’s trying to kill you?” Tina suggests, almost absently. Forrest scoffs, even as doubt plays across his face. “No!” he says on camera, while his voiceover mulls it over with, “And yet…”

“That’s a lot of times. That’s a lot of times to almost die.”

“When you consider all the dangerous things that I’ve been asked to do,” Forrest continues, “how can that be random?” Review’s camera work is always nimble, as self-aware as Forrest is self-deluding. In this scene, it’s intentionally, delicately intrusive, floating as it slowly brings Grant into frame.


Smashing his way into Grant’s office after hours, Forrest ransacks it for evidence and finds plenty, or so he believes. Along with Grant’s three kinds of fish oil and magazines of antiquated medical equipment, Forrest finds “the smoking gun,” a master list of every request ever submitted to Review, with each completed review circled in red. But malicious selection wouldn’t explain how innocuous assignments turn to nightmares—“Conspiracy Theory” delivers reminders of these horrors in quick flashbacks throughout—and soon Forrest concludes that Grant not only stacks the supposedly random deck with life-threatening reviews, but orchestrates every disaster in collusion with Josh, Tina, and Lucille. It’s a conspiracy… to kill Forrest MacNeil.


Holing up in a motel room, Forrest covers the walls with photos and sticky notes and compulsively watches and re-watches the duplicate requests from Gina of Toluca Lake asking, “What’s it like to kill a person?” He sketches out how and why Grant engineers his every misfortune, including Mr. MacNeil’s house fire. “What kind of a monster would make my dad homeless for a television show?” On a midnight visit to Grant’s home, Forrest says, “It was time to confront the monster in his lair.”

Andy Daly, James Urbaniak (Comedy Central)

After two seasons of misery, the notion that he’s the target of a murder plot is almost comforting. Grant shatters that comfort with the plain truth: “People are constantly asking you to review dangerous things because they already know what the easy stuff is like. They can do that themselves.” In the face of Grant’s frankness—and his friendship—Forrest reluctantly discards his conspiracy theory as “an easy explanation for my miseries.”

It was easy to believe, and it’s easy for Forrest to lapse back into belief. Review, with its combination of randomness and audience-driven blood lust, makes it easy. His next request comes from Grant’s hometown of Sandwich, Massachusetts: “Hey, Forrest, what’s it like to be hunted?” This assignment reinforces Forrest’s fear even as it proves Grant’s point: No one wants to be hunted, but some people want to know what it would be like. Peril, pain, and dread are Review’s natural medium.


What’s not natural is the delight of Forrest’s colleagues. Lucille doesn’t just tell Forrest she’s hired a former Navy SEAL to hunt him; she relishes it. Josh and Tina ask idly, conversationally, if Forrest wants help hiding and where he’d like to be buried. When Lucille tricks him into believing his assassin has crept up on him, they all chuckle at his panic. “You [bleep]ing monsters!” Forrest roars. “I’m going to get out of this hell you’ve made for me!”

“Monster” is a word Review uses again and again. In the very first episode, Forrest crows “I’m a monster!” at his intervention for cocaine addiction. He whispers it when he contemplates taking on a foster child just to shoot arrows at him. Suzanne screams “You monster!” when he brings back her father’s corpse from space. In a press conference announcing Forrest’s return, a reporter asks if he’s afraid the show is “turning you into a monster.” Mrs. Greenfield’s last words are “Die, monster, die!”


But Forrest MacNeil isn’t a monster. He’s a dedicated, diligent person who’s let his job pervert those admirable qualities. As Review systematically strips Forrest of everything he cares about, he redoubles his efforts, pouring all his energy into the one thing he has left: Review. He’s not a monster. He’s a tragedy.

And Grant isn’t a monster. He’s just as devoted as Forrest, and just like Forrest, he’s devoted not to a person, but to the show. Grant—all the Review staff members—assiduously keep the show’s gears running, whether that means two careless helpers burying a living person in an unmarked grave (and predictably forgetting his location) or letting a house burn down or watching Forrest kill a man. Review is the monster, and its rapacious maw will consume everything Forrest has if he lets it. Grant is only feeding it, as Forrest made him promise to from the beginning.


After his foray into the world of Besser’s conspiracy junkies, Forrest is sympathetic but clear-eyed about their misguided belief that “life’s misfortunes aren’t simply random, but are instead the work of a villain who can be smoked out and defeated.” Like much of Review’s pathos, this is more poignant for being so close to a revelation. Forrest teeters on the edge of a breakthrough, almost seeing that the show designed to give him insight into life is costing him everything in his life that matters. There is a villain here, but it’s neither Forrest nor Grant; it’s the show.

Suzanne was right to tell Forrest, “The only person that you need to be afraid of is yourself.” Forrest created Review. He created the monster, and he keeps it alive by feeding his life to it, one experience at a time. There’s no secret conspiracy against Forrest MacNeil, just the one he unknowingly conceived. Review isn’t designed to hurt him, but its machinery will hurt him anyhow, and its machinery is tireless, fueled by the morbid curiosity of his viewers, the assistance of his staff, and his own ongoing sacrifice.


Andy Daly has invested Forrest MacNeil with a deep, touching humanity beneath his blandly chipper exterior, showing the abyss of his insecurity, the veneer of confidence atop it, the well of sorrow and eternal spring of love inside him. In “Conspiracy Theory,” he showcases Forrest’s fury, his fierce instinct for survival, and a streak of cunning that matches his well-established tenacity. Forrest steals Lucille’s car and flees, determined to save himself as well as Suzanne and Eric.

Grant’s usual knowing detachment is always effective. In this episode, James Urbaniak makes it feels almost poisonous. His bloodless recitation of the calculations predicting Forrest’s route, his smug “Let’s see if we can work this out, we usually do,” his dismissive description of Forrest’s “little crisis of faith”—they all paint a picture of the kind of mastermind who could craft a conspiracy to kill just for the sake of a television show, keeping the barest glimmer of doubt alive. His dispassionate certainty is maybe the most chilling element of this ghastly, thrilling episode… at least until Forrest lets himself be drawn into an argument with Grant, unaware of the black SUV pulling in behind them and the armed man in tactical gear approaching, framed just over his shoulder.


“Conspiracy Theory” perfectly balances rational explanations with irrational suspicions right up to the last moment. How far would Grant go to get a good show, a good shot, a good take? We know he’d bury a man alive. We know he’d consider smothering Forrest with a pillow. Would he hire a killer?


As Forrest and Grant fight on the bridge, Grant raises his voice—maybe in honest emotion, maybe to cover the sounds of the approaching gunman. Maybe even Grant can’t know for sure what his motivations are. He calls Forrest a friend, says he respects and admires him, and manipulates Forrest like a puppet. Even as Forrest, his conspiracy theory debunked, weeps in his arms, Grant maneuvers him around for a better camera angle. When Forrest, dirty and distraught, walks into his home sneering, “You’ve ruined my life for the last time… Gretchen, you bitch,” Grant smirks to the camera, “This should be good.” A good scene is all Grant wants—for himself, for the show, for Forrest. He says Forrest is a genius, and I believe he thinks so, because genius inspires folly of the kind these two have wrought.

But Grant hasn’t had Forrest killed for the show; he’s only let Forrest think he’s being killed for the show. “It’s a paintball gun!” Grant yells, but too late. Overcome with mortal terror and the need for vengeance, Forrest has already tackled Grant, and they tumble over the guardrail and to the water far below.


Is this the end of Review, or is this the Reichenbach Falls? I almost don’t know what to hope for. As a series finale, “Conspiracy Theory” is ambitious while remaining fundamentally true to the show. It’s a logical extension of Forrest’s gradual awakening to the show’s destructive influence on him and everyone around him. It’s a disproportionate but affecting comeuppance for Grant, who always urged Forrest on to destruction in the name of the show.

If “Conspiracy Theory” is a season finale, not a series finale, Review will have to create a compelling, plausible survival story for its characters, and an equally compelling reason for Forrest to return… and after this season, I‘m confident they can. Whether they should is another question.


Review is all about questions, and one in particular. Forrest MacNeil opens each episode of Review asking, “Life: It’s literally all we have. But is it any good?” The tragedy of Forrest’s question is simple: As long as he lives through the show and for the show, he’ll never answer that question. Forrest’s co-host closes the season two finale with a rejoinder, if not an answer: “This is A.J. Gibbs saying ‘Life: You’re already living it. Ain’t it great?’”

Stray observations

  • Forrest’s review: believing in a conspiracy theory, half a star.
  • A.J.’s review: “I don’t like to be sad, so I like to think that they’re floating down that river, settling their differences with one another. And if I’m right about that, I’m pretty sure Forrest would give being hunted six stars.” With that one word—“six”—A.J. undermines the entire structure of Review.
  • Review’s camera work always deserves more notice than I have space to give it in these weekly reviews, but “Conspiracy Theory” makes a virtue of obtrusiveness. Paradoxically, the gesture of acknowledging the camera does a lot to excuse its presence in the most private scenes, like his visit to Suzanne.
  • After Forrest takes Grant over the end, the crew stand around, aghast. I have to wonder if they reacted this way to every one of Forrest’s 11 near-death experiences, and if only Grant’s presence on-site and in the editing room kept those reactions off the air.
  • That ends our season two coverage of Review. I started the season excited to cover a favorite series; I end the season stunned by the depth of story and character Review mixes into its dark humor, and by its unfailingly deft performances. Reviewing Review: five stars! Thank you for reading.

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