A Review of a Review of a Review of Reviews

Andy Daly's new show on Comedy Central reviews often-mundane life experiences and, in the process, highlights our everyone's-a-critic nature.
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Andy Daly's new show on Comedy Central reviews often-mundane life experiences and, in the process, highlights our everyone's-a-critic nature.
Andy Daly. (Photo: YouTube)

Andy Daly. (Photo: YouTube)

Television has a proud and inconsistent history of shows about television. On the one hand, you have 30 Rock and The Larry Sanders Show, DNA-writing triumphs that have (and will) last long after they went off the air. On the other, there lies a mess of easily forgotten one-offs, shows with names that sound like nothing. (Anyone remember Listen Up? I do!) When you make entertainment about entertainment, there’s a certain endearing self-awareness to be had, but if you miss, the whole thing folds very fast. A bad TV show about TV makes you feel like you’re watching two bad TV shows at once. It also makes you very conscious of the fact that you’re watching TV—and not enjoying it.

Review is not a bad TV show about TV. In its first season on Comedy Central, which ends today with the finale, Review has created an intriguing and unique meta-fiction. Its densely rendered lunacy recalls the knotted work of experimental American novelists like Harry Mathews and David Markson, writers whose books contain books, which contain books. Unlike the sometimes impenetrable work of the postmodernists, Review is easily entered, and consistently hilarious. But like them, Review calls attention to the nature of American society—in this case, our widespread desire to be critics.

The show takes the minutiae and self-consciousness of everyday life, the pancakes and the sex tapes and the racism, and blows them up from the inside. Review is like putting aspects of everyday existence under a microscope and then mocking them until someone cries.

HERE’S THE SHOW’S PREMISE: Comedian Andy Daly plays Forrest MacNeil. MacNeil reviews things, and he has a TV show called Review that exists within the Review we are watching; there’s Forrest MacNeil’s Review, and there’s Andy Daly’s Review. Forrest doesn’t review the usual subjects of reviews, like books or products or restaurants; he reviews life experiences. In the show’s truly original twist, the reviews he undertakes—which begin with him literally leaving the set of the in-show Review and entering the (still in-show) world—have tangible effects on his life.

Take the pilot. Forrest reviews addiction, and in doing so becomes manically addicted to cocaine. He uses an intervention by his family as an opportunity to celebrate how successfully and efficiently he’d gone through all the stages of addiction. His sobbing wife takes him to rehab, a scene that morphs into a scene of him watching himself go to rehab on a little screen in the Review studios. Later in the episode, he reviews prom, using his high-school age babysitter as his ticket to go. The stress of the prom makes him relapse on cocaine. He gets stretchered out and returns to rehab.

Third episode: He eats 15 pancakes, with all the visceral displeasure and despair one might expect to see in someone eating 15 pancakes. Then he divorces his wife because someone asked him to, with all the visceral displeasure and despair one might expect to see in someone divorcing their wife for no reason. Then he eats 30 pancakes.

The show takes the minutiae and self-consciousness of everyday life, the pancakes and the sex tapes and the racism, and blows them up from the inside. Review is like putting aspects of everyday existence under a microscope and then mocking them until someone cries.

More importantly, though, Review serves as a sort of heat check. Because of the ubiquity of communication that comes along with the Internet, consumers, more than ever, have the ability to both give and receive opinions. Yelp allows anyone, in the span of 10 seconds, to not only see her counterparts’ hive-mind evaluation of a restaurant or service, but to also then compare individual testimonies to see what sounds most in line with her tastes and temperament.

Yet, the proliferation of reviews in general has hamstrung the expert reviewer; the specialist is surplus, a luxury. None of this is a revelation; it’s been going on since the Internet started spreading. Yelp and Twitter and Facebook are often impossible tornadoes of noise, and wading through them to find actual, actionable opinions takes either an incredible focus or a large amount of alcohol, made worse by the fact that the services themselves, Yelp in particular, struggle mightily with sorting through and organizing their mountains of content. Yet, businesses still die by the collective Yelp hand, causing their managers to troll the forums in hysterics and attack negative reviews like zealots; as of May 2013, the Washington Post found that there had been at least 700 complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission by small businesses against Yelp. And to make matters even more serious, a Harvard Business School study found that a one-star increase in Yelp ratings correlates with a five to nine percent increase in revenue, and that Yelp’s status as a guarantor of experience has been so effective that it has even resulted in a decrease in chain restaurants. The Last Great Film Critic may have passed away last year, but reviews are more important than ever.

REVIEW COMES AT A moment in which Comedy Central has repositioned itself as the home of comedy’s cutting edge. For every Tosh.0 and similarly archaic, racism-and-viral-videos dinosaur, the channel has something like Review or Broad City, a similarly paradigm-shifting comedy that makes hilarious the most mundane parts of being two young women living in New York City. It’s a savvy strategy because the shows serve as stark counter-programming to the deliberate and over-orchestrated escapism of network TV, which, in claiming to shed light on the lives of its archetypal characters, more often highlights how different they are from their real-life inspirations. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily; it’s just a fact. New Girl is hilarious, but Jess is an impossibility.

Review, meanwhile, feels devoid of predestination—even when you can guess that divorce will put Forrest into a spiral, watching it play out still feels organic and unpredictable. Part of this has to do with Daly’s excellent characterization, the tics and suppressed neuroses that make Forrest a nuclear meltdown waiting to happen. But the other part comes from how Review has tapped into a weirdly resonant aspect of our culture. Forrest MacNeil is taking back the role of the critic, and he’s doing it the only way possible: tapping into the least considered elements of everyday life. Are we really that far away from a Yelp for things like divorce and prom? How about having children? Would you recommend it? It’s just, you know—the fate of our species depends on your review.

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