I can go on at length about the difference between reviewers and critics. Seriously, don’t get me started. Suffice to say, one of them makes a worthwhile contribution. The other is just kind of there to little effect, hardly more than another number stirred into an aggregate. I know which one I hope to be, but I also have enough healthy self-doubt to suspect which one I usually am.
So Review is particularly relevant to me as a mean-spirited jeer at the futility of evaluating experiences in isolation instead of actually experiencing them in context. This Comedy Central series just wrapped a third and supposedly final season earlier this year. But is it any good?
At a superficial level, Review is another mockumentary style comedy just as likely to make you cringe as laugh. Like The Office, which inspired a whole genre of this stuff, the characters are aware of the camera. As a stand-in for you, the viewer, it participates. It doggedly follows them around, editorializing with the occasional zoom or pan. Its goal is to document the review process of Forrest MacNeil, who inexplicably has a TV show in which viewers write in to request reviews of life experiences instead of products.
The series is based on an Australian show I haven’t seen, so I can’t say how much of it is a do-over minus the accents. But this American version is mostly the creation of a writer for the insufferable Tosh.0 named Charlie Siskel and a one-time documentarian turned director Jeffrey Blitz. The less said about Tosh.0, the better, but I’m happy to report Review doesn’t have a laugh track, an overweening smugness, or Daniel Tosh. After the charming spelling bee documentary Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz is batting 500 as a writer and director. His coming-of-age story, Rocket Science, is an underrated gem. His turgid studio comedy wanna-be, Table 19, is an example of how some writing is so bad that not even Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, Stephen Merchant, and Lisa Kudrow can save it.
But the heart and foundation of Review is Andrew Daly, credited as its third creator. His character, Forrest MacNeil is the ringleader and victim of every episode. With his dimples, wan blue eyes, and sport coats, he manifests the bland good looks of any TV host. But he also has the rock-solid sincerity of an everyman and the “aw shucks” affability of a schoolboy. Review is fueled by the terrified desperation behind his smile. Unlike a lot of cringe comedy based on someone terrible doing terrible things — again, the template is Ricky Gervais and later Steve Carell on their respective Offices — Review is based on someone good being subjected to terrible things. If the Book of Job was a sitcom in a secular culture, it would be Review.
I don’t mean that as a throwaway comment. Along with Ecclesiastes (“All is vanity!”), The Book of Job is one of the Hebrew Bible’s weirdly heretical writings (whereas Christianity tends to dismiss competing worldviews, Judaism is more willing to struggle with them). It’s about a bet between God and Satan, using Job as a test subject. If terrible things happen to him, will he decide, “Fuck it, I’m becoming an atheist”? Given that it’s in the Bible, you can guess the outcome (spoiler: no). But what’s remarkable is the conclusion. After all his suffering, Job asks what we all wonder: Why? God’s response, and arguably the point of the story, is “Dude, seriously? Seriously? I made all this remarkable stuff in the world, good, bad, trivial, majestic. I made it all. And you think you can wrap your head around how it works? Don’t even.”
But the thing that people forget about the Book of Job is that the answer to “why?” was there all along. The answer is there before God shows up to Godsplain the universe. The reason for Job’s suffering is that God made a bet with Satan. The two of them were testing something. They were playing a game. They were doing reality TV way back when the viewership was only two. Job’s suffering was for the LOLz.
Review is a similar situation. What starts out as a jokey premise — viewers write in requesting reviews — turns into a cruel kafka-esque absurd play about a man whose life is entirely dictated by the whims of people watching him. What’s it like to eat too much?, they wonder online. What’s it like to be amoral? What’s it like to suffer? Through some unknown means that include video and online comments, these questions filter down to Forrest MacNeil and they determine his fate. He must find out what it’s like to eat too much, to be amoral, to suffer. No God or gods determine his fate. The uninvested curiosity of strangers does. Forrest MacNeil is arbitrarily forced into extremes of the human condition, gamely planning it and then documenting the process. Cosmic cringe comedy. Which reminds me, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are credited as producers.
As you might imagine, there’s plenty of room here for social commentary. Among the reviews are drug addiction, stealing, racism, and divorce. And that’s just the first three episodes of the first season. The segment reviewing racism is an ingenious bit of satire. After spending time with black people to investigate their characteristics and therefore what drives racism, Forrest concludes that black people “won’t shut up about their catering business” and “mouth off to Derek about things that are none of his business”. These are as arbitrary as pigmentation. Forrest uses them as the foundation for discriminating against blacks. He shouts, “shut up about your catering business!” out the car window as he drives past black pedestrians. He tells a nonplussed black cashier, “I know you’re just going to tell Derek about this.”
He tries to segregate his workplace. The bit of dialogue about the color copier is a fine fine bit of writing along the lines of “who’s on first?” He interviews a white supremacist who gets buzzed on cheap beer and starts holding forth about Obama and gun control.
“You know who else wanted to take our guns?” the tipsy racist asks. “Hitler.”
“But you like Hitler,” MacNeil observes. He gestures to a poster of Hitler next to a swastika flag.
This is Review at its best. Smart, funny, carefully written, insightful, keenly performed by Daly and informed by MacNeil’s naivete. When he tries to prove he’s a racist to his friends, they think he’s joking. When he drops the n-bomb, his black friend has to explain racism to him. His black friend points out that he was already a racist. It’s not something you choose to do. It’s a cultural undercurrent. It’s there even if you’re not trying. You don’t have to study under a drunk white supremacist. Review manages in mere minutes what Get Out took a whole movie to attempt.
At the end of every segment, Forrest gives a rating based on a five-star scale.
“I give racism…half a star,” he pronounces. His perky blonde co-host uneasily explains that racism shouldn’t get any stars.
“We don’t do zero stars,” Forrest says. “We had a long meeting about that.”
The series is also a commentary on the absurdity of our need to evaluate and quantify our experiences. Every show opens with these words: “Life. It’s all we have. But is it any good?”
This is the premise of the show and the premise of the review process. It’s what people expect. A reviewer intends to tell you whether something is any good. Is it fun? Is it entertaining? Does the reviewer recommend it? Which cell phone should you get? Which book should you read? Should you see Mother or The Emoji Movie? Which is better? A review is solipsism as a worldview. What do I like? And what do I therefore assume you should like? What can I tell you to do or not do? How can my preferences inform your choices? That’s the premise of a review. It’s inane.
Criticism, on the other hand, considers meaning in a larger context. A critic doesn’t know you. He couldn’t care less which cell phone you get and he has no idea which movie you should see. He is not trying to convince you of anything. He wouldn’t dream of quantifying racism. Remember 1400 words ago when I said, “Don’t get me started”? See what happened? I can’t help myself.
But the most important fact about Review isn’t necessarily its social commentary or its implied disdain for the act of reviewing. The most important fact is that it’s freakin’ hilarious. Episode four is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see about a DC Comics superhero, and that’s including anything ever directed by Zack Snyder. There’s a point where “it’s not my urine” is the obvious punchline. There’s a pause. You can see it coming. It fits. It makes sense. Of course Review is smart enough to put it here. You know it’s what he’s going to say. But Review is also smart enough to know you know. So it’s saved another joke in the delivery. This is the kind of funny that Review accomplishes. Funny bumped up to the next level.
I’ve only watched the first season, which is a complete and ongoing storyline with a perfect ending. On one hand, I’m glad to know there’s more Review to watch. But on the other hand, I’m disappointed the first season’s clever, funny, and definitive ending isn’t actually the ending. There’s more? Should there be more? Shouldn’t the series have the courage to stop here? I’m not sure what to make of this ending not being the ending. So I give Review…four and a half stars.
(Wondering what’s all this stuff about a TV show from three years ago? Why is a guy who writes about videogames and sometimes movies writing about a Comedy Central series that’s already over? If you support my Patreon campaign for $10 or more, once a month you’ll have to opportunity to assign me a review of anything you want. But please don’t choose drug addiction, stealing, racism, or divorce.)
Forrest MacNeil's Review
Click the link to the left for the racism episode. Enjoy!