Review Review

The life of a critic is hard.  The pay is low, the pressure to produce is high, you get called an elitist and a snob, you have to take in a lot of worthless crap, and occasionally you make a stupid decision that ends your career.  Well, maybe that last part only applies to me.  The point is, despite all the people lining up to do it because they have no other job skills, there’s not many rewards to being a professional reviewer.

That’s why so many of us have come to look up to Forrest MacNeil, the reviewer adeptly portrayed by Andy Daly in Comedy Central’s series Review (itself adapted from an Australian TV series).   Now entering its second season, Review follows the redoubtable Mr. MacNeil, who, unlike the rest of us, who dither around critiquing piffle like music, literature, art, and television, goes straight for the nitty-gritty and reviews life itself.  At the suggestion of his viewers, a disparate and sometimes sadistic lot, MacNeil (ably assisted by A.J. Gibbs, played with delightfully expressive careerist contempt by Megan Stevenson) reviews real-life experiences, documenting the results for his television audience, often egged on by his heartless producer Grant (the always-welcome James Urbaniak, who seems to be getting a lot of work lately).

Forrest MacNeil is so admired by those of us in the critical profession not because he only reviews the best life experiences (amongst other disasters, he’s had to take on such low points as being a racist, ‘curing’ a homosexual, and “there all is aching”), or because of the accuracy of his ratings (one star for getting revenge is clearly too low, five for marrying a stranger is clearly too high, and his reversal on drug addiction –giving it five stars during a coke binge and lowering it to a half-star after a court-mandated rehabilitation — does him no credit).  No, what makes us respect MacNeil’s game is his commitment.  When he takes on an assignment, he really takes it on; whether it’s joining the mile-high club or running from the law, he throws himself into the project whole-heartedly, refusing to take half-measures no matter what the consequences to his own private life.

The cheerfully oblivious degree to which MacNeil dedicates himself to his craft — an attitude played with hilarious exactness by Daly — is what separates Review from so many other recent, and lesser, shows operating within the context of the humor of humiliation.  Following the ancient rule of comedy that the pie in the face works best if the chump has dignity, MacNeil provides us with the spectacle of an optimistic, game, and inherently decent man who is willing to completely throw his life away for the sake of the quixotic occupation he has chosen to pursue.  It’s no later than the third episode that he divorces his deeply beloved wife and ruins his entire family just because some random viewer asked him to; it’s both a huge laugh-getter and a deeply upsetting moment.

Of course, as illustrated in that very same episode, none of this would work if the show wasn’t funny, and it is — profoundly, ridiculously, and constantly.  At first, a viewer asks MacNeil to eat 15 pancakes, which he barely does, Daly completely selling his utter discomfort at such a herculean culinary task; then, shattered and lacking meaning in his life after his arbitrary divorce, he takes on his next assignment — eating thirty pancakes — with a nihilistic determination that, if anything, is even funnier.  Further assignments do not disappoint:  becoming Batman, going into outer space, and attending an orgy are all high points of season 1, and season 2’s gay conversion therapy and encounters with a public park gloryhole are wonderfully indicative of MacNeil’s genial cluelessness.

Far from being the innocent and clear-eyed victims they are in a lot of comedy-of-humiliation shows, MacNeil’s friends and co-workers are, for the most part, a gaggle of creeps who aid and abet his near-suicidal dedication to his craft, including his worthless intern Josh and his long-suffering secretary Lucille.  (Forrest’s long-suffering father also appears in season 2, played by Max Gail — Barney Miller‘s Wojo!)  The great Alison Tolman of Fargo also shows up in the new season as MacNeil’s nurse, after a shocking — and shockingly funny — misstep made during an attempt to review bare-knuckle brawling; this event shows that our hero hasn’t really learned anything after all.  Having nearly destroyed his own life after reviewing divorce in season 1 (and having left himself an out, in the form of the ability to veto two viewer suggestions a year), MacNeil climbs right back on his wobbly, wrong-way horse and loses Tolman, his new love, by reviewing blackmail.

Visually, Review is surprisingly engaging; each episode, written by Daly and directed by veteran documentarian Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound) is expertly done, almost auteurish, and nicely blends the demands of a multi-camera comedy with the necessary rough edges of a verité documentary.  This leads to a lot of the series’ most impressive visual gags; Blitz knows exactly when to start and stop the camera for maximum comedic effect, usually when MacNeil is at the height of a cocaine fiending, a drunken naked orgy, or a trip to the diner where he famously ate 30 pancakes.  Review has also nicely incorporated its occasional celebrity guest stars, integrating them skillfully into the premise of the show (Lance Bass proves himself admirably down to clown in a season one episode where MacNeil goes into space), but never letting them take over or seem like a gimmick.

While Review may seem like a show with literally endless possibilities — the season 2 opening credits have already been changed to represent a new series of absurd life events MacNeil has reviewed, any one of which would make a fantastic full segment on the show — it might have a limited lifespan.  It’s already teased out a good amount of detail about MacNeil’s private life, and the degree to which his unshakable commitment to the premise of the show effects that life, and that level of detail probably can’t go on forever.  But at the moment, Review is one of the funniest, best executed, and most original comedies on television, and at the risk of ruining my own life, and offending my own A.J. Gibbs (whoever that might be), I’m going to give it a very high rating.  My review of Review:  four stars.

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