Saturday, November 7, 2015

Life in "Review"

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a cocaine addiction?  To sleep with a celebrity or participate in an orgy?  To eat far, far too many pancakes?  Well, now there's a show that will explore these life experiences for you: "Review with Forrest MacNeil."  Your genial host takes review requests from viewers, gamely does his best to experience each one to the fullest, and then returns to his studio to recap and assign it a rating on a five star scale.  Of course, many of the life experiences that Forrest is asked to review are ones that no sane human being would ever willingly seek out in real life, and Forrest is forced to bear the brunt of the physical, financial, and psychic damage required to accomplish them - the cumulative effects of which wreak havoc on his personal life.

I've watched all of the available episodes of Comedy Central 's two seasons of "Review," which is based on the Australian mockumentary show "Review with Myles Barlow."  Reportedly, the original is just as dark and twisted, though the different host is an important distinction.  The American "Review" is a showcase for Andy Daly, a familiar face if you've watched much Comedy Central programming, who is only now getting a proper vehicle for his formidable talents to shine.  Resembling a bespectacled Conan O'Brien, Daly's Forrest MacNeil initially appears to be a pleasant, white-bread, well spoken man, always decked out in a tan suit jacket and khakis. However, it's slowly revealed that he has lurking insecurities and an absolutely fanatical devotion to the show, to the point where he's willing to turn his life and relationships into a complete shambles to live up to his lofty, exacting standards for reviewing.  As "Review" goes on, the big question becomes how far Forrest is willing to go, and how much he's willing to sacrifice in the name of fulfilling his duties as host.

Each episode of "Review" covers two or three reviews, allowing a wide range of subject matter to be examined in a quasi-sketch comedy format.  Forrest is given new assignments by his lovely co-host, A.J. Gibbs (Megan Stevenson) and then goes out into the world with a camera crew to document his experiences, ranging from "Road Rage" to "Curing Homosexuality."  He's often aided by his executive assistant Lucille (Tara Karsian) and unpaid intern Josh (Michael Croner), and later Josh's girlfriend Tina (Hayley Huntley).  Forrest enforces absolutely no personal boundaries in his pursuit of a review, so assignments like "Making a Sex Tape" end up involving his wife Suzanne (Jessica St. Clair) and their young son Eric (Kaden Gibson).  Other loved ones who are impacted include Forrest's father (Max Gail) and father-in-law (Fred Ward). Whenever Forrest wavers in the face of adversity or emotional devastation, he's gently encouraged by his evil producer Grant (James Urbaniak) to stay the course.

It's difficult to get into the particulars of why "Review" is so effective without getting into major spoilers - and even reading the episode titles gives too much away.  However, I think the whole conceit works so well largely thanks to Andy Daly, whose energetic performance sells the obsessive nature of Forrest MacNeil, makes it easy to laugh at his horrible misfortunes, and yet also gets you to care about him.  One minute you're giggling at his antics in "Being Batman" and then feel genuinely bad for him when those antics turn out to have some awful consequences.  Several developments involving Forrest's  family are genuinely poignant and heartrending.  There are also weirder, more conceptual reviews that play with the format, which are a lot of fun.  Of all the recent comedies that have embraced a bleaker, more nihilistic outlook on the world, "Review" is surely one of the most daring and well executed.

The first season, which unveils its cold, cruel nature bit by bit is one of the best debuts of a television show I've ever seen.  The second can't hope to match up to it, pulling bigger stunts with smaller returns, but it's still well worth watching.  So I hereby give "Review" its well-deserved five stars, and for Forrest's sake, I hope the show doesn't go on for too much longer.

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