If you only remember B.J. Novak as Ryan Howard, the temp who morphed into the arrogant office ass of The Office, it’s a good time to be reminded that he’s a writer, too. In fact, he wrote a lot of episodes of The Office and has continued to click away, successfully writing bestselling books while working on other series like The Mindy Project. This month he debuts his first created series, the FX anthology B.J. Novak’s The Premise that serves up standalone episodes tackling contemporary topics on anything from sex tapes to gun rights.
While anthology series are back in fashion again, the reality is that contemporary efforts are mostly scattershot endeavors. The original The Twilight Zone remains the gold standard of the genre, but it’s hard to find current examples where excellent stories are the norm. For every diamond like Inside No. 9, there are even more instances of series like Black Mirror, Modern Love, or Solos where the duds are plentiful.
The Premise belongs in that nebulous middle ground as Novak (who is credited as the writer or co-writer on all five of the episodes provided to critics) works hard to provoke, but rarely manages to elegantly present something truly unexpected. Where he does excel is assembling a cast of actors who elevate the material as best they can with some particularly great work coming from Jon Bernthal, Kaitlyn Dever, Lucas Hedges, and Eric Lange.
Unfortunately, the fatal flaw of the series lies right in the title. While The Premise advertises itself as “character-driven,” in reality the stories are plot driven, ending on a “moment” or a particular line that feels entirely backwards-engineered to stick that landing. Too many of the main characters are cyphers existing to underline some point made in a monologue, or a rant that is meant to confront the moral quandary of the explored topic. The worst example comes in “Social Justice Sex Tape” where Ben Platt plays an inept dudebro whose sex tape ends up being integral in proving the innocence of a framed Black activist. His social justice impulse to do the “right thing” leads to his humiliation by the prosecution, defense, and a string of former girlfriends on the stand as they detail his sexual deficiencies. Unable to take any more, he erupts with a rant about how being f-ed by the justice system or the social justice system are now one in the same. It’s a highly scripted moment without an organic bone in its body, but those words are needed to get to the point of the episode. And while the eventual point presented is valid, the ridiculous court scenes and ham-fisted outbursts used to get there are narratively sloppy and weirdly immature rather than truly funny.
On the other end of the spectrum lies “The Ballad of Jesse Wheeler,” which satirizes how pop culture is now the religion and currency of the young. Kaitlyn Dever and Lucas Hedges are sublime in the episode. She is the smart but purposefully underachieving senior at Victory High School who pulls out all the stops to try and earn valedictorian status. Why? Because a recent alumni-turned-global-pop star (Hedges) comes back to donate to the school library, and impulsively offers the future valedictorian backstage all-access passes and the chance to have sex with him. Despite the narrative being riddled with logic flaws concerning said valedictorian chase, the overall scenario is so outrageous and well-executed by the leads that the weak points are mostly forgiven.
Otherwise, “The Commenter” also rises above the pack because it presents a unique exploration of social media comment culture via the highly curated ‘Gram Life of a vapid white lesbian. Instead of a tired tech-peril parable about reading the comments, what unfolds is a clever meditation on how being challenged by an unknown “nobody” might actually be the path to true validation and authenticity. It’s the most organic and unexpected of all the episodes presented, with an outcome that is both subtle and thought-provoking.
Tthe other two episodes, “Moment of Silence” and “Butt Plug,” both suffer from endings you see coming a mile away. Though Bernthal, starring in the former, again proves how powerful his performance chops are, there’s nothing particularly surprising or profound about where his character ends up. It’s unsettling but adds nothing truly insightful to the discourse around gun culture. Meanwhile, “Butt Plug” feels like Michael Scott could be the co-writer of the “tee-hee” framing device at the center of the episode. And yet, Eric Lange manages to bypass the absurdity of his character’s year-long quest in a masterful presentation scene that succeeds as an example of virtuoso acting rather than a story about the enduring toxicity of bullying and revenge.
The ultimate worthiness of The Premise taking up your time is going to be based on your individual patience level for uneven storytelling. And that’s a shaky premise to build a series upon.
The Premise premieres September 16 exclusively on FX on Hulu.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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