When it comes to TV comedies, words like “uproarious” and “heartwarming” are usually the first to come to mind. There’s only one word that best represents Comedy Central’s show Review, though, and it’s “punishing.”
Review, while it is an adaptation of an existing Australian show with the same concept, is also clearly the brainchild of its creator and star, Andy Daly. Daly, a longtime comedy veteran who has appeared on Eastbound & Down, Mad TV, Comedy Bang Bang, Silicon Valley and Modern Family, has a sense of humor that always bends toward the darkest possible interpretation of any given scenario.
But it’s important to note: on Review, Daly’s darkness goes so much deeper than the pessimistic musings of some run-of-the-mill stand-up, and it’s because of his unfailingly positive, chipper persona. He’s able to reach never-before-seen character depths due to the perfect storm of a seemingly optimistic, cheery man, who always experiences the worst possible outcomes.
Review is the foremost modern masterpiece in the realm of awkward-situation comedies, a category so often watered down and repetitive that even classifying Review within it seems like an insult. But this show’s commitment to its premise is always one million times more serious than its contemporaries.
If you’ve never watched the show, which just premiered its third season on Comedy Central, here is an example that should help illuminate what Review is about. The premise is as follows: Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) is the host of a show (also) called Review, but rather than reviewing “food, books, or movies,” he reviews “life itself.” He accepts submissions from viewers for things to review, life experiences that vary wildly from one to the next.
Review is shot in a mockumentary style, a behind-the-scenes making-of the show-within-the-show. Forrest is on camera for the show he hosts, then he walks off set to accomplish each task, and cameras follow him, no matter where he ends up.
In each episode, Forrest typically reviews two or three different experiences. The format works like an absolute charm, and the best encapsulation of Review’s genius will probably always be the third episode of the first season.
In it, Forrest’s first request is to review what it’s like to “eat 15 pancakes.” As ever, Forrest is excited and optimistic as he heads to a local diner. But the further he gets into his pancakes, the more miserable he becomes. The most crucial thing to know about Forrest MacNeil is that his commitment to the integrity of the review is unshakeable. So even though it’s terrible, he muscles through and finishes the fifteen pancakes.
Then he gets to the second review of the episode: getting divorced. Forrest, who has a happy life with his wife and young child, is in shock. But he resigns himself to the task, and in a truly dark and heart-shattering scene, he tells his wife (played by the great Jessica St. Clair) that he wants a divorce.
Forrest’s life is literally ruined, and he doesn’t even give the experience a star rating. His son goes away with his wife, and Forrest is a hollow shell of a man. He begrudgingly returns to accept his third and final review for the episode, which, as it turns out, is: eating 30 pancakes.
The scene that follows, in which Forrest returns to the diner and begins to eat 30 pancakes, is one of the best scenes in recent comedy history. Eating that many pancakes in one sitting is a horrifying task, but after literally tearing his own family and life apart for no real, justifiable reason, what could truly harm Forrest MacNeil? Not pancakes, certainly. He finds an inner strength he didn’t know he had, and finishes the plates, giving the experience five stars.
“Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes” is a perfect Review episode because it includes everything that the show excels in: relatively light-hearted, if uncomfortable, situations that Forrest finds himself in; dilemmas that very literally threaten Forrest’s livelihood and even his life; and the circular, punishing way that things always come back around in the end.
And while “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes” is certainly a highlight, it’s important to note that it isn’t a genius flash-in-the-pan episode, nor is it the most dark plotline of the series. Things get much, much worse for Forrest, and even funnier as the story continues.
Review is episodic, in that each episode tackles new concepts, but the woes of Forrest’s life also stack up through the seasons. Forrest’s divorce plays a huge part in the series, even up to the new season premiere. If anything bad can happen to Forrest, it does, and it doesn’t go away once the episode is over.
You may be asking yourself, “if this show is so tragic and punishing, how can it be fun to watch?” It’s a reasonable question. The show’s charm is due in large part to Andy Daly’s performance as Forrest MacNeil. He’s a bit of a type: bumbling, naïve, optimistic, resilient. But we’ve never seen that type go through the horrors that Forrest does (without too many spoilers, here’s an incomplete list: cocaine addiction [linked below], running from the law, leading a cult, being buried alive).
All of this is to say: it’s a genuine gift that the show Review exists, and last week, it returned with its third season premiere. It shows no signs to slowing down, either. The new episode picks up from the masterful second season finale and keeps up the pressure on Forrest. A light spoiler: one of the reviews is “putting a pet to sleep.” It’s as sharp and painful as ever. The more you want to look away, the more you can’t.
There’s nothing else on TV like Review. And while we have it, we should cherish it. The first episode of Review’s third season is available to watch for free on Comedy Central’s website, and the rest of the series can be viewed there if you log in with your cable subscription information. I’ll say it one more time, just to be clear: this is the funniest and darkest comedy on TV right now, so don’t miss it.