Living in the modern world is hell.
That’s the point made, over and over, in the new anthology series “The Premise,” an FX on Hulu original. This show’s five half-hour vignettes, each written or co-written by show creator (and former “The Office” actor/writer) B.J. Novak, examine concerns of this historical moment: Topics include bullying and income inequality, the general public’s relationship with fame, the self-serving nature of allies to social-justice movements, and addiction to social media.
It’s this last one that gives the game away. Most of the episodes feature lengthy, clumsy bits of dialogue or monologue that feel ripped from the daily concerns — and the ranty, discursive way of talking at, not to, one’s followers — of social media. And one, about a woman (Lola Kirke) who can’t figure out why she’s attracted a troll who comments negatively on her seemingly perfect Instagram posts, seems written from deep within a set of issues it’s attempting to diagnose and to critique. This installment has been cannily bulletproofed, in a way, by Novak and by Jia Tolentino, the “Trick Mirror” essayist and the episode’s co-writer: To pick at the episode’s flaws is to be a part of a culture of negativity.
With that said, this episode lacks the urgency to which “The Premise” seems to aspire. For one thing, anxiety about online commenters is as old as the internet itself, and the question of how one is perceived more generally is as old as human consciousness. (The key reversal here, that Kirke’s character is perversely drawn to critique in order to drown out her uncertainty over her true self, is not exactly novel either.) And the ratio of premise to execution here seems badly botched. Kirke’s character, even when we hear her “inner voice” at episode’s end, is a cipher — practically no characters on “The Premise” extend beyond very broad types. And yet the extremity of her situation has crept up around her, trapping her within a story whose machinations she must play out until the story’s resolution. Why, in the absence of character detail, must she track down her troll in order to make the story go? Well, you see, she’s living under capitalism.
This show borrows from social media, in other words, its split sense of the individual as, at once, a protagonist on a hero’s journey and a powerless, faceless member of the crowd ground down each day by big systemic forces. Both can be (or feel) true at different times, but the attempt to split the difference moment-to-moment rarely works here. In another episode, a billionaire (Daniel Dae Kim) offers financial rescue to his former school bully (Eric Lange) if the latter can design a perfect example of a particular sex toy (one used in anal sex, thus apparently upping the degradation in Novak’s mind). Lange’s character spends a year developing a case for his particular product, making reference to the economist Thorstein Veblen’s concept of the luxury good as status symbol in his pitch, only to find himself the victim of plot caprice. Lange’s character’s finding himself even amidst a yearlong humiliation might be the beginning of something interesting. But there’s a sourness at “The Premise’s stagy astonishment at this fellow’s knowing who Veblen is — stopping the proceedings for his whole, very long, pitch — before slotting him back in his place.
There’s a similar feeling in an episode in which a Bieberishly enlightened pop star (Lucas Hedges) offers his body as a reward to the valedictorian of his alma mater. It plays like a sneering joke on the students racing for the prize, as if Novak is watching dogs walk on their hind legs. One student (Kaitlyn Dever) pushes into contention for top of her class because she’d never contemplated that the world of ideas might be interesting before sex with a celebrity was on the table. That she finds herself there after a lifetime of zoning out is a testament to the potential within each of us, or a joke about how desperate normal people are to meet celebrities, made by celebrities.
This show’s obvious antecedent is “Black Mirror,” another anthology series that uses overstatement in its plot to advance arguments about the contemporary condition. That series, though it’s grown baggier over time, tends at its best to home in on economically written character moments amidst the madness, to give us a reason to care about the big problems of the moment beyond the fact that we’re soaking in them. Here, a story concerning the high-tech humiliation of a feckless white civil-rights ally (Ben Platt) is all incident. (This is the other of the two co-written episodes, credited to Novak and to the lawyer and journalist Josie Duffy Rice.) Platt’s unfortunate character captured police maltreatment of an innocent Black man, played by Jermaine Fowler, in the background of a sex tape. To reveal the footage is to reveal Platt’s character’s shortcomings. The tension here between one man’s humiliation and the greater good, probably already not a fair fight to many viewers, is utterly deflated by the fact that Platt’s not playing a character. And his being brought low flickers by in an episode that seems to pass in the length of a tweet.
Only one episode here seems to get at what “The Premise” was trying to do — create, through storytelling ratcheted past the point of plausibility, a situation that places a frame around certain intractable sensations of living in this moment. Jon Bernthal plays a grieving father whose family was torn apart by gun violence; he goes to work, in what is heavily telegraphed as a kamikaze mission, for a fictionalized version of the NRA. While guns are not a brand-new phenomenon in American life, a sort of sanctimonious, two-faced pity on the part of the firearm lobby for the victims of these weapons has come to be a part of daily life, and this series diagnoses that well; so, too, does it give Bernthal, a gifted actor, a chance to play shades of grief and rage hidden within doing what it takes to get by in a job he hates.
All of this, described a different way, would sound as though it were on the verge of sliding into cliché, and it may hit viewers that way regardless. But I was impressed by this one episode’s considered tone, its balancing between seeing the individuals and the system at the same time, and its building the sort of tension that relies on our affinity for and relationship with the people we’re seeing onscreen. Bernthal plays a nascent friendship with a pro-gun loyalist (an excellent Boyd Holbrook) with a sort of aching, elegant humanity that is more pronounced for how absent it feels elsewhere. Should “The Premise” get more episodes, it’s time to leave social media behind, and step further into the world.
“The Premise” premieres Thursday, September 16 on FX on Hulu.
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