My reaction upon reading the premise for Flaked: is this a live-action version of Bojack Horseman? The comparisons are at least intriguing. Flaked stars Will Arnett as a recovering alcoholic who’s trying to figure out the point of his seemingly directionless life while using his sad stories to have emotion-less sex, and he’s also crushing on his best friend’s latest love interest. It’s a bit of a broad setup, but one that’s not too far off from Arnett and Netflix’s other show, if you ask me. It’s a comparison that I think is worth making right away because there’s a stark difference between the two. Where Bojack Horseman manages to dig into issues of addiction and depression while subverting the sadsack white male trope—he’s a sadsack horse, after all!—the premiere of Flaked is often rote and familiar.

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Flaked starts in a rather dark place, with Chip (Will Arnett) detailing why he’s in AA. Essentially, he killed someone while he was drunk behind the wheel ten years ago, the legitimately difficult story recited as the camera focuses tightly on a number of members in the meeting, all dirty nails and tattoos. The drunk driving story is really just immediate backstory though, and doesn’t really come into play as the episode moves through the predictable motions of a series premiere.

What’s interesting is that the series premiere boasts a low-key, low-stakes vibe, and yet struggles to escape the trappings that bog down so many premieres. That means that this episode tries to move along at an organic pace, making it seem like we’ve just dropped in on the lives of Chip, recovering alcoholic, and his band of quirky buddies—Dennis the hopeless romantic and Cooler, the eccentric hanger-on—but can’t quite shake the need to cram a lot into the half hour, perhaps an effect of the season only containing eight episodes. Essentially, “Westminster” is filled with familiar plot points, and they’re almost all rushed. We see Dennis confide in Chip about his crush on a waitress named London, followed by Chip hitting it off with her, then lying to Dennis about it, and all capped off by a final reveal that Chip’s sobriety isn’t exactly intact. Flaked does very little to make the familiar setup feel fresh or exciting, and that doesn’t bode well when you’ve only got eight episodes to tell your story.

If Flaked does have something going for it though, it’s the low-key, low-stakes tone I mentioned above. There’s nothing low-stakes about addiction and recovery, but the potential appeal of Flaked lies in the way that it treats Chip’s life as an alcoholic. Other than the drunk driving story that kicks off the episode in a rather flippant fashion, Flaked does a good job of showing how Chip’s alcoholism is part of who he is. It dominates his life, as he’s focused on being a good sponsor (or at least mentor) to a young coffee shop owner named Stefan (or Stefon, depending on who’s pronouncing it) while also hooking up with a girl he met in AA. The intriguing part is that Flaked uses Chip’s alcoholism to flesh out the character’s worst tendencies. In essence, his alcoholism isn’t the reason he’s an asshole, but it certainly doesn’t help. Rather, Chip is a mess of contradictions. He’s self-assured and yet deeply insecure. He’s noble in his goal to help Stefan, but there are also shades of self-satisfaction, as if he’s using Stefan’s sobriety as a litmus test for his own worth.

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There’s meaningful character work within those contradictions, and the most fascinating, at least through the first episode, is the way Chip is so determined to keep Stefan in the program while also failing at keeping himself sober. There’s a vulnerability to Arnett’s performance that’s subtly devastating. He clearly wants to be the model recovering alcoholic, especially to those he’s closest to, and yet his addiction is clearly in control of him. There are two versions of Chip fighting with one another (or at least Chip would like to think there are; perhaps they’re the same person). There’s the one who sees no way out from where he is. He’s stuck romantically and financially, and harbors a general resentment towards most of those around him. But there’s also another Chip that knows he shouldn’t be acting like that, that knows he’s harming people in both big and small ways, and that he’s treating sobriety more as a performance than an actual thing necessary to keep him, and others, alive.

For instance, when he’s reciting the lines from a Frida Kahlo biography that Dennis was going to use to connect with London, he’s quiet and hesitant. He knows he’s betraying his close friend, and yet he can’t help himself. That’s addiction, and it’s clearly seeped into all parts of his life, but he’s at least aware, trying to fend off all of his most self-destructive impulses. That quality appears in another moment too, though this one is much smaller. A guy on a bike swiftly pedals past him while Chip is making his way home, and Chip shouts “this is a walking path!” He’s instantly hostile. Then the biker replies with a friendly, “sorry, man,” and Chip sighs. “It’s okay,” he says. That moment is all self-awareness, and it’s heartbreaking. Chip knows he flew off the handle, that he has a tendency to exhibit hostility when it’s uncalled for, and yet he’s not sure how to control it; he’s not sure how to be a better version of himself.

“Westminster” suffers from its adherence to a familiar type of storytelling, one that bogs down so many series premieres. And yet, there are the building blocks of something meaningful in the mess of plot. Early on, I’m not interested in whether Chip pursues London, or whether Chip’s shop is in danger of being sold by their absent landlord Jerry. Rather, it’s the internal character moments that show promise, much like with Bojack Horseman. If Flaked can escape its more familiar dramedy trappings, it could become something more meaningful, something that digs into the little aspects of life that make us feel uncomfortable, happy, that force us to reckon with our own identity and self-worth.

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Stray observations

  • “You ever get the feeling that this is the one?.” “All the time.”
  • “She played rhythm trombone in an indie band.”
  • The name “Free Coffee” had me chuckling. “You know, free of bad stuff.”
  • “I don’t want to be the guy that’s read the first chapter of a 1000 page biography.” Picking and choosing quotes from throughout the rest of the book isn’t any better, Dennis!
  • “We’d be so happy together for like…15 years.” I’m down with Cooler so far.
  • Flaked using Kurt Vile’s “Pretty Pimpin’” makes a lot of sense when you consider that the show’s tone is akin to the laidback vibe of that song.
  • Great, small comedic moment when Chip is trying to convince Dennis to leave London alone during her shift change, and Cooler pulls up on his bike: “What are you guys doing for shift change?”

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