In the first scene of Life & Beth, the camera is close-up on Amy Schumer as she, seemingly, gives a speech about passing time, perspective, what we deserve, that long and winding road and all the other Big Things. As she presses on in her monologue, the camera pulls back, though, to reveal that she’s not confronting what it all means. She’s selling mediocre wine to an annoyingly unselfconscious pair of restaurateurs (Kate Berlant and John Early, both great, having fun flaunting their comedic chemistry). The salesperson—that’s Schumer, the titular Beth—then gives an empty compliment to the duo, which piques Early’s character’s interest:
“I wouldn’t say we’re mysterious,” he protests, in a way that only people who do think they’re mysterious protest.
“I do get that,” his partner chimes in.
“But we do have a fascinating story,” he continues, unironically. “It’s actually insane if you want to hear it.”
“Tell me every single thing,” Beth encourages.
“So yeah, I went to BU and I majored in communications.”
“Stop,” she counters, as if that’s incredible.
“And I transferred into BU from Tufts,” his partner blathers, “and I double majored in communications and marketing, so….”
This is the world we’re thrown into in Life & Beth, where a lot of the people around Schumer’s protagonist are oblivious—to her happiness, if not most other things. Beth may have it good on paper: good apartment in Manhattan, good boyfriend (at least according to all her coworkers, although he’s clearly a douche and a unhinged under the surface; shoutout to Kevin Kane for pulling that off), good job that makes good money. But to misquote The Replacements: If you look her in the eye, you can tell she’s unsatisfied.
It’s a setup that works really well with Schumer’s strengths as a comedic actor, allowing us to relate to each befuddled look, furtive, disgusted glance, fake laugh and awkward gesture. At first, everything comes off like a smartly scripted, quite funny rom-com with pop-ins from cream-of-the-crop New York comedy talent. Life & Beth could have been just that, and no one would complain. (Wait. People love to complain, about everything, so yes, some absolutely would. Never mind.) But Life & Beth is a lot more than a smartly scripted rom-com. For Schumer—who created the show and also directed and wrote episodes—it’s clearly a passion project, and she takes some big swings to get to some real emotional depth. By the end of episode one, we’re hit with the death that the not-so-hot title of the show suggests, the one that will hover over the remaining nine episodes, and move it into darker waters and more ambitious storytelling.
And that’s what makes Life & Beth both exciting and a little frustrating. On the one hand, you have present-day Beth, who decides to ditch city life and give new things a go—namely, her hometown on Long Island and John (Michael Cera), an extremely literal farmer with an inability to whisper, even at funeral he shows up late to, in which he announces, straight-faced, “I think we’re the only white people here.” Cera, with a patchy beard and filthy farm duds, plays the kind of guy who has carrots in his pocket (we get the joke) in case he needs a snack and befriends 10-year-olds, and is a delight throughout. And while he only appears now and then, John’s vineyard co-worker—portrayed by Jon Glaser in a ridiculous short hairdo accompanied by an oily, braided ponytail—kills every time he’s onscreen.
On the other hand, as the show goes along, more and more time and emphasis moves towards flashbacks to young Beth. As an awkward 14-year-old—she’s played, excellently, by Violet Young—Beth endures bullying about exposing her breasts, BFF fallouts and other humiliations, and has to cope with her broke dad (Michael Rapaport) and flirt of a mom (Laura Benanti). This storyline does have some affecting moments, mind you. There’s a particularly emotive night-swimming scene set to “Green Arrow” by Yo La Tengo, and all of the silent-or-stammering early-teen awkwardness comes off as authentic, never straying into hyperbole.
But narratively, the push and pull between showing Beth as she’s nearing 40 (in a fish-out-of-water bit, she and her friends get drinks at a club full of much younger folks that has a bright lit-up sign that says “Fuck.”) and as a child experiencing real trauma doesn’t quite find the right rhythm. Watching it unfold, you wish Schumer either decided to focus more on the budding romance with the weird and weirdly likable John—it’s a charmingly offbeat relationship—or cut the series down to, say, seven episodes, like HBO’s recent coming-back-home comedy Somebody Somewhere. (Coincidentally, NYC nightlife staple Murray Hill is having a moment, appearing and shining in both shows.) The ending of Life & Beth, another speech, this time actually about those Big Things, also feels pretty rushed and jarring, like a great bottle of wine uncorked just a bit too early.