Over the past several years, cable channels and streaming services have been teeming with anthology series, many of them following a simple formula: Take some hot-button sociopolitical issue, abstract it slightly into a horror or science-fiction short story, and then slyly prod the audience, reminding them about our tumultuous real world while rarely making any clear, direct statement about How Things Are Today. So give writer-producer (and occasional director) B.J. Novak’s new FX on Hulu project The Premise credit for this: It doesn’t couch its observations about modern life in metaphors and fantasies. Each of The Premise’s five episodes are contemporary dramedies, confronting timely topics like corrupt policing, gun rights, bullying, celebrity worship, wokeness, and internet trolling.
But it’s also wildly inconsistent, with the episode quality ranging from “better than the plot would suggest” to “soul-crushingly shoddy.” Of those first five episodes, the two that are the most overtly comedic, “Social Justice Sex Tape” and “The Ballad Of Jesse Wheeler,” are near-total disasters: overly blunt and painfully unfunny. The two that function more like genre exercises, “Moment Of Silence” and the unfortunately named “Butt Plug,” are surprisingly effective, edge-of-the-seat tales of suspense. And then the other episode, “The Commenter,” falls somewhere in between, with a sketchy story that gets more tense as it goes along… but which never overcomes the paltriness of its original idea.
What all these half-hour playlets have in common are some phenomenal casts, capable at times of elevating the material. In “The Commenter,” for example, Lola Kirke is terrific as an influencer and wellness guru named Allegra, who sees her seemingly perfect life start to fray when an online troll prompts her to second-guess her life choices. A lot of the action in “The Commenter” is internal, playing out in voiceover as Allegra reads the troll’s words; and Kirke plays the character’s creeping doubt and paranoia subtly, showing how she becomes increasingly distracted and distant.
Even “The Ballad Of Jesse Wheeler” is almost rescued by its leads. Kaitlyn Dever plays Abbi, a high school slacker who overnight becomes one of her class’ top students after a visiting pop star pledges to have sex with that year’s valedictorian. Lucas Hedges has a naïve charm as that teen idol, Jesse, a well-meaning dim bulb who ends up having long philosophical conversations with the rebellious Abbi about whether school actually has a purpose.
But great performances can’t overcome weak scripts, strung together with ideas that sometimes feel like first drafts. In “The Commenter”—co-written by Novak and Jia Tolentino—it’s hard to get past a moment early on when Allegra finds out she’s won the award for “Miss Generational Inspiration.” Allegra later makes fun of the award, but in the reality of the episode, this stupidly named and barely explained prize (not too far removed from The Montgomery Burns Award For Outstanding Achievement In The Field of Excellence) is supposed to be a real and apparently prestigious thing, which impresses Allegra’s girlfriend Beth (Soko) and their cool friends.
Similarly, in “The Ballad Of Jesse Wheeler,” it makes no sense that a senior with terrible grades—who has cut class for three straight years—could even attempt to become valedictorian, an honor which in nearly every actual high school takes into account a student’s complete four-year transcript. Novak is the sole credited writer and director of this episode, and if he’s trying to say something pertinent about the American public educational system, it’d help if he didn’t botch the basics of how grades work. Also, it’s a lazy bit of stereotyping that Susie (Grace Song), Abbi’s top valedictorian competition—and the lone student with a GPA above 3.0 prior to Jesse’s visit—is the only named Asian American character in the episode.
Much of The Premise is meant to be humorous, in the vein of a whimsically absurd New Yorker piece, so some exaggeration for comic effect is to be expected. But Novak’s jokes (if they are jokes… it’s unclear what we’re supposed to think about the whole “Miss Generational Inspiration” thing) often feel more like a means to a narrative end than hilarious goofs or witty insights. They’re a few degrees sillier than they need to be, perhaps because Novak only has 30 minutes to get to the point of his story.
Too often with The Premise, these miscues compound, as in the excruciating “Social Justice Sex Tape”—the show’s first episode, for some reason. The story (co-written by Novak and Josie Duffy Rice) is the most New Yorker-like in concept, with Ben Platt playing Ethan, a compulsive “virtue signaler” who uncovers the video evidence that could free an imprisoned Black man. Only, Ethan finds it in the background of an erotic selfie in which his crudely sexist language and borderline racist behavior falls well below the standard of an “ally.” In the ensuing trial, both the prosecution and the defense scrutinize Ethan’s public and private personas, in ways far removed from anything that would happen in an actual courtroom. (There’s Novak taking comedic liberties again.) These surface-level attacks on both “social justice warriors” and their nitpicking critics ultimately prove to be more smug, sour, and depressing than amusing or enlightening.
Novak is probably still best-known for having once been a writer, producer, and actor on The Office, which makes The Premise’s failures as comedy all the more frustrating. Oddly, the series is much, much better when it’s playing straight. In “Moment Of Silence,” Jon Bernthal plays a scarily intense new hire at an NRA-like lobbying group, with concerned coworkers who’ve become increasingly certain that he’s planning to go on a shooting spree. And in “Butt Plug,” one of the world’s richest men (Daniel Dae Kim) hires a down-on-his-luck former classmate (Eric Lange) who once bullied him mercilessly, and then asks his new employee to craft the ultimate pitch for the title object. What makes both “Moment Of Silence” and “Butt Plug” work so well is that none of the characters—not even the gun nuts—are depicted one-dimensionally. All the way to the nerve-racking closing minutes, it’s hard to tell what anyone’s intentions really are.
More importantly, neither episode (both credited solely to Novak) is predictable or heavy-handed. Instead they’re beguiling and unsteadying; and they have much more to say than the likes of “Social Justice Sex Tape” about how there’s more to most people than just the slogans and hashtags in their Twitter feeds. These two episodes actually fulfill the premise of The Premise, which FX has touted as “An Anthology Of Now,” telling stories that cut to the heart of what’s really troubling us these days: economic insecurity, power imbalances, fear of mass tragedies, and the like. The rest of the series so far feels like it’s reacting more to reality as refracted through social media, where everything is distorted, grotesquely outsized, and ultimately irrelevant.