In 2019, when Netflix announced Inside Job, its first in-house animated series, there was only a vague sense that our national perspective toward conspiracy theories and disinformation/misinformation would have degraded to the point that it since has. Space Force, The President Show, The Activist, even the brilliant Veep couldn’t keep up with the sheer speed at which “politics” deteriorated.
Creator Shion Takeuchi, former writer for Gravity Falls, does her best to navigate this change. Along with executive producer Alex Hirsch, you can tell Inside Job wants to sink its teeth into the sheer insanity and chaos of wholly invented tales, whether it’s folk legends about Sasquatch or global conspiracies like 9/11 “truthism” and fake moon landings.
Funny jokes and premises about all those concepts fly fast and furious, but even with such a talented creative team, you can’t help but get the sense that Takeuchi and Hirsch have had to limit themselves in terms of how far they take things. It’s an understandable impulse, but ultimately, it keeps Inside Job from being the kind of show it wants to be.
Reagan Ridley (an absolutely game Lizzy Caplan) is a brilliant yet dysfunctional and insecure scientist at Cognito Inc., which carries out the will of a shadow government that secretly controls the world. She’s on her way to leading a team of talented but often incompetent coworkers: horny biochemist Andre (Bobby Lee), sassy shit-talking media manipulator Gigi (Tisha Campbell), man-dolphin hybrid/supersoldier Glenn (John DiMaggio), and hypocritical, psychic mushroom creature Myc (Brett Gelman).
But J.R. (Andy Daly), Cognito’s CEO, appoints a clueless, go-getting, white sycophant named Brett Hand (Clark Duke) to co-lead the team with Reagan. Inside Job makes it clear that Brett’s promotion is based entirely on him being a white, confident, straight dude (on paper, he’s still an unpaid intern). The series does put in the work to show that Brett’s outgoing, friendly personality is an asset that curmudgeon Reagan lacks. Reagan is also burdened with baggage brought on by her mother, Tamiko (Suzy Nakamura), and, particularly, her father, Rand Ridley (Christian Slater), who was forced out of Cognito Inc. after getting drunk and wanting to blow up the sun.
Jokes like that hint at all of the potential ideas cooking in Inside Job’s premise—perhaps too many. In practice, it takes a lot of cues from American Dad!, BoJack Horseman, Rick And Morty, Venture Bros., Archer, and even Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. These comparisons point to the series’ central struggle—a lot of its themes and character development choices are meaningful and relatable, but also a bit played out. Reagan is a ball of neuroses and trauma, and Inside Job approaches its lead character in much the same way its high-concept predecessors have.
In the third episode, Reagan reacts violently when asked to hug someone, so she creates a machine that provides hugs for her, which then malfunctions and nearly causes a war with the lizard-people elite. In another episode, she struggles with romantic relationships, so she builds a robot boyfriend to practice on but soon becomes toxically attached to it just before the robot develops sentience.
As bizarre as these stories are, they feel like retreads, which makes the much bigger surprises and twists later in the season seem more random than organically revealed. Myc, the character through which most of the show’s self-aware jokes are filtered, lampshades some of these twists, literally calling “bullshit” on one of them, but it doesn’t quite elevate the show to new heights.
It’s disappointing because, premise-wise, Inside Job has so much more narrative than character development potential. Not to say the show shouldn’t develop its characters, but having the core group oversee every single conspiracy ever should provide a Venture Bros. level of intensity and reach–and the first two episodes do step up to the plate. The premiere involves replacing the “incompetent” president with a robot version that Cognito Inc. can actually control, which also malfunctions, natch–but the action escalates into a silly but exciting Terminator-meets-Manchurian-Candidate romp.
The second episode sees Reagan and Brett figuring out who to fire for budget reasons, and while it mostly involves Reagan enjoying all the brown-nosing heaped upon her by her coworkers, it ends with an Akira-esque, body-horror monster attack, a grotesque but incredible bit of animation. Inside Job’s later episodes also have ambitious premises, including dealing with a utopian moon colony and handling a literal evil lair on a hidden island, but they rarely dig into their outlandish possibilities.
This points to a fear to really commit to Inside Job’s shadow government premise due to real-world concerns, which ends up leaving the purpose of Cognito Inc. too vague. It’s cute to watch the show play coy with whether the work they do is “evil” or not (and the ambiguity is a fun running joke), but more often than not, the lack of clarity leaves viewers wanting more. There’s a lot of hate-talk toward the city and people of Atlantis; later on, it’s revealed that the Illuminati is a rival group to Cognito Inc.’s whole… thing, and these quick asides seem so much more interesting than the personal squabbles on which the show mainly fixates.
It’s also strange that Cognito Inc., with near-limitless resources, would struggle with a small group of Flat-Earthers (let alone be surprised by the fact they exist since the company’s mission is about manipulating everything in the world); later, the team is shocked that NASA has kept the existence of dangerous moon worms secret, all of which raises questions about the extent of Cognito Inc.’s influence, and more pressingly, what these people as individuals want. Reagan, at least, tries to surpass her father’s legacy at the company, but everyone else seems like they exist just for comedy schtick.
A second season might really delve into the nitty-gritty of Cognito Inc.’s capabilities, but the debut mostly revolves around Reagan’s (and to a slightly lesser extent, Brett’s) emotional damage and conflicts with her parents, where the personal interactions and role of the company overall is more intriguing. Reagan’s fight for respect and power in an absurd, chaotic bureaucracy becomes secondary to the roller coaster push-and-pull between father and daughter, which feels like a waste of a show brimming with so much nonsensical potential.
Watching Caplan’s and Slater’s characters trade barbs in a commonplace narrative about dysfunctional families is very entertaining, but again, it all feels so very familiar, even with so much here to work with. At one point, the team visits a town stuck in the ’80s, an episode ripe for sharp satire about the weird and creepy nostalgia for that era, including a Ghostbusters joke that’s both perfect and couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.
But Inside Job still feels hesitant with its reach, opting for a kind of “both sides” acceptance of something so unhealthy and strange. The series’ foray into the world of secrets, lies, and pulled strings of shadow governments should have fun with everything around it, and when it does, it’s fantastic. Using all that potential to mine soap operatic daddy issues in this day and age is as overdone as a false flag claim.