‘The Premise’ Review: An Anthology Series With No Big Idea

The title of B.J. Novak’s new FX on Hulu series, The Premise, feels like an ironic one, because exactly what the show is about, and why, proves so elusive. FX’s press notes describe it as a “curated collection of character-driven episodes [that] challenges our shared morality tales, choosing art over argument, as it engages with the most relevant and meaningful issues of the modern era.” That is a collection of words that seem more or less in order, but don’t say a lot. The tagline, “An Anthology of Now,” feels like the kind of smug marketing catchphrase that Novak’s Office character, Ryan Howard, might have dreamed up during his Dunder Mifflin Infinity phase. An overarching premise can always be a challenge with episodic anthologies, where the cast and setting change from one installment to the next, but there’s usually some kind of clear thematic link between all the disparate ideas — as the writer Daniel M. Lavery once joked, every episode of Black Mirror is “What if phones, but too much?” — which The Premise doesn’t quite have.

The five episodes critics were given for review are only slightly more helpful in figuring out what it is that Novak and his collaborators are trying to do. Across these installments, The Premise reveals itself to be a collection of short stories about modern life. Some are broadly comic, some intensely dramatic, some merely whimsical in a New Yorker kind of way. They can be exasperating and confusing, but also intriguing. At times, it’s god-awful, and at others genuinely good. But the shifts in tone and execution from episode to episode — or even scene to scene within certain episodes — feel incredibly jarring, even when The Premise seems close to achieving its full potential.

As if to illustrate this challenge — or maybe to prepare viewers for the wide range of styles Novak is aiming for — the show is premiering this week with a pair of episodes: “Social Justice Sex Tape,” a courtroom farce about the perils of performative politics, and “Moment of Silence,” a drama with nary a joke to be found. The latter choice is for the best, since The Premise is generally at its worst whenever it’s aiming for laughs.

In “Social Justice Sex Tape,” Black political activist Darren (Jermaine Fowler) is charged with assaulting a police officer, while he claims the cop in question tripped and fell on his own. His claim is supported when local gentrifier Ethan (Ben Platt) discovers footage of the incident in the background of a NSFW video he was filming with his girlfriend. Darren’s lawyer Eve (Ayo Edebiri) has to introduce this mortifying video into evidence, at which point the trial somehow becomes less about Darren’s guilt or innocence and more about the jury’s feelings regarding the self-aggrandizing, transparently phony white-ally rhetoric of Ethan. Ethan is such an easy, gratingly two-dimensional target as to make the scenes where Eve and the prosecutor (Talia Balsam) tear into him almost unwatchable. (They’re the satirical equivalent of the “Stop! He’s already dead!” Simpsons meme, only the beating just… keeps… going.) And all the punchlines about his hypocrisy on race, feminism, and other causes clash badly with scenes where Darren’s legal situation, or Eve’s attempt to impress cool boss Rayna (Tracee Ellis Ross), are being treated with the utmost seriousness.

It’s an absolute mess — which is then immediately followed by the show’s darkest, and best, early episode. In “Moment of Silence,” Jon Bernthal plays Chase, who has responded to his daughter being murdered in a school shooting by… becoming a PR person for the gun lobby? This sounds like fodder for a sick joke, but the episode is played entirely straight, thanks to a typically committed performance by Bernthal, and to the suspense that builds as Chase’s coworker Aaron (Boyd Holbrook) begins to wonder if his new best friend is perhaps planning a mass shooting of his own at their workplace. Like Bernthal, the episode as a whole doesn’t flinch, up to the payoff revealing whether Aaron was right about Chase or not.

Unfortunately, from there, we whiplash back to painfully caricatured humor with “The Ballad of Jesse Wheeler,” starring Lucas Hedges as the titular, Bieber-esque pop star, who returns to his old high school with a promise for whoever becomes this year’s valedictorian: VIP passes to his concert in L.A., a private tour of his Hollywood mansion — and oh, yeah, Jesse will have sex with them. This inspires the once apathetic student body — in particular the chronically truant Abbi (Kaitlyn Dever) — to hit the books in the hope of making Jesse pay up. None of the behavior in it makes sense, even in a spoof context, and there’s an abrupt, unearned attempt late in the story to go for complete sincerity — an attempt that’s undermined almost immediately after the scene in question ends.

Daniel Dae Kim in the “Butt Plug” episode of ‘The Premise.’

Alyssa Moran/FX

The remaining episodes prove a bit more elusive, but not necessarily in a bad way. In “The Commenter,” Lola Kirke plays influencer Allegra, who begins to question every aspect of her life, including her happy relationship with Beth (Soko), after a troll begins commenting on her Instagram feed. In “Butt Plug,”  powerful businessman Daniel (Daniel Dae Kim) offers financially floundering Eli (Eric Lange) a chance to make a potentially life-altering pitch featuring the sex toy to his board of directors; but Eli isn’t sure whether the opportunity is real or just elaborate revenge for Eli’s relentless childhood bullying of Daniel. As with “Moment of Silence,” in each of these episodes a key character’s motivations are shrouded in enough mystery to create compelling tension: Is the troll trying to be helpful or hurtful? Can Eli actually create a viable business around the butt plug, and, if so, does Daniel even want it? And both installments are buoyed by strong performances from actors like Kirke, Lange, and Kim.

But in both its serious and ridiculous episodes, The Premise is acutely self-conscious of the whole “Anthology of Now” idea, inevitably pausing the action for a monologue or debate about whatever hot-button issue Novak and the other writers (Jia Tolentino co-wrote “The Commenter” with him, for instance) want to address. Those more didactic passages tend to feel clumsily inserted in a way that breaks the spell of the story being told, making each person in them more palpably a symbol rather than a character.

There’s also the challenge of trying to be ahead of the curve given the timeline of producing scripted television, particularly as the pandemic has elongated an already slow process. Early in “Butt Plug,” Daniel asks Eli if he knows the story of the Ship of Theseus, a parable that is fast becoming as overused in pop culture as all those movie and TV scenes where someone recounts the fable of the frog and the scorpion. Some of the series’ larger topics are similarly picked over: “Social Justice Sex Tape” would be a chore under almost any circumstances, but its jokes about hypocritical progressives feel nearly as ancient as if it were a half-hour about how bad airplane food tastes.

Critics were given these episodes without the Twilight Zone-style introductory monologues Novak will be offering at the start of each one. It’s possible that when Novak is going full Rod Serling (or Jordan Peele), he’ll reframe these stories in a way that more explicitly connects their themes. But they won’t do anything for the hit-or-miss nature of The Premise as a whole. Episodic anthologies have largely fallen out of fashion on TV because audiences like having some idea of what they’ll be getting from one installment to the next, whether continuing characters, a Big Idea, or just a consistent level of quality. The Premise does not seem built to solve this problem, even if it has moments that make its tagline feel a bit less boastful.

The first two episodes of The Premise will be released September 16th on Hulu, with additional episodes premiering once per week. I’ve seen the first five episodes.

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