Approximately a dozen people watch Comedy Central's Review, and half of them are probably critics. But the surrealist series did something this week that is a true rarity on television — quite a feat, considering how much television is out there.
In its second season finale, and perhaps its last episode ever, Review might have blown itself up.
Based on an Australian series of the same name, Review stars Forrest McNeil (Andy Daly), an almost supernaturally cheerful man whose daily uniform includes crisp khakis and tan blazers. On Review, the show within the show, Forrest reviews life experiences for his curious viewers on a scale from half a star to a full five stars. Some experiences are as innocuous as "having a best friend" or "what's it like to eat 15 pancakes?" Others delve into more advanced territory, like "making a sex tape," "going to space," or in the series' first devastating blow (and one of its best episodes overall), "getting divorced."
Forrest attacks each assignment with gusto — and then the assignments start attacking him right back.
Review is about life experiences, but also the downfall of its committed host
Throughout the course of the first season, Forrest's reviews become more and more disastrous, to the point where he was in serious danger of (sometimes literally) burning his entire life to the ground.
Sticking to the show's premise so rigidly alienates people and destroys his preexisting life, especially after he obeys the show's order to divorce the "love of [his] life," Suzanne (Jessica St. Clair). Daly has spoken about how the Australian version included a review of divorce, which crystallized the series for him and director/head-writer Jeff Blitz.
While Review very easily could have been more of a sketch series, containing silly reviews that never had ramifications beyond a single episode, Daly and Blitz decided that making Forrest get a divorce should reverberate throughout the series. From there on out, Forrest has dealt with very real consequences.
Daly is a masterful comedian who can find the humor in even the direst of circumstances. His portrayal of Forrest flips between intrinsic good nature and startling ferocity when a review lets him throw his normally laced-up inhibitions to the wind (see: "orgy"). Other times, when Forrest has to face the consequences of his aggressive actions, Daly's performance becomes heartbreaking.
As Forrest keeps committing to more and more outlandish, dangerous, and, frankly, selfish reviews, the voiceover opening of the show takes on a new and more depressing context: "Life — it's literally all we have. But is it any good?"
Maybe it is; maybe it isn't. Review never comes to a conclusion. At the very least, though, Forrest's life certainly doesn't look any good by the time we're done watching him live it.
Just when it looked like Forrest might learn better, Review's second season doubled down
At the end of the first season, Forrest attempted to quit the show in a bid to win back his ex-wife. When the second season began, there was the sense — or maybe just the hope — that Forrest would learn from his first season's mistakes, namely prioritizing the show over every single other thing in his life.
But Forrest's determination to review life for his loyal viewers — however many there actually are is never clear — barrels onward.
The second season sends him down an even more destructive path, this time roping his elderly father into the mess. He gets new girlfriends (Lennon Parham, Allison Tolman), only to immediately use them in his reviews, to catastrophic effect.
Where Review's first season trained viewers to brace themselves for the inevitable disaster, the second challenged the limits of just how low its host could sink. It is uncomfortable to watch.
I wouldn't exactly recommend binge-watching Review, but that's because if you take it all in at once, you might get so overwhelmed by the overarching sadness of Forrest's commitment that you'll miss the hilarious details along the way. Daly's physical comedy is second to none, and he sells Forrest's unwavering, Eagle Scout-level commitment with an "aw shucks" chuckle that will almost make you forget he's committing some truly awful acts.
Review's second season finale is the most daring chapter of an already gutsy show
(Those who have not seen through the second season finale should definitely stop here. Otherwise, read on!)
While most episodes of Review usually include at least two reviews, the second season finale is simply titled "Conspiracy Theory." For this one, Forrest is asked what it's like to believe in a conspiracy theory, and he finds that it's all too easy.
Written by Daly, this episode takes you into Forrest's head like never before. He starts questioning all the catastrophic events from throughout the show, like his divorce, burning down two houses in a row, and almost dying a grand total of 11 times. There's also the fact that he's currently on bail after being asked to review "murder" and subsequently (though accidentally) following through.
Forrest, shaken like he never has been before, concludes that the only possible explanation for the charred remains of his life is that oily producer Grant (a diabolical James Urbaniak) is plotting to kill him. In his vulnerability, Forrest latches on to the idea that maybe, just maybe, every terrible experience he's had while on this show is thanks to some grander scheme. Maybe none of this is his fault at all!
It's not true, of course. As an exasperated Suzanne tells Forrest, his life is in shambles because he put the show above everything else. Yes, Grant and the rest of the Review crew egged him on and used his enthusiasm against him. But Forrest knew he was hurting himself and everyone around him, and kept going anyway.
The brilliance of "Conspiracy Theory" is that despite all this, it very nearly convinces us that Forrest is on to something. After all, he has gone through an awful lot of trauma in a very short amount of time. His review for "what's it like to spend an afternoon on a rowboat?" got him lost at sea for months.
It certainly wouldn't be the first time a reality show has inspired its subjects to do terrible things, as Lifetime's UnReal explored earlier this summer. So even though Forrest has proved himself to be a profoundly unreliable narrator, it still seems like he might have figured something out here.
Still, it would have been a little disappointing if he were right. Revealing an elaborate web of lies might have been a spectacular way to go out, but making Forrest the villain of his own life is a much more ambitious choice.
In the show's final act, Grant has hired a Navy SEAL to track Forrest for the latest review submitted: "What is it like to be hunted?" It's not exactly the best review for Forrest, who is still in a panic over his conspiracy theorizing. At the very least, it does produce some stunning television when he makes a run for it and rushes at Grant — taking them both careening over a bridge into a rushing river.
The show ends on a confused note some time in the future. The crew doesn't know what to do, because neither Forrest nor Grant has been found since the incident on the bridge.
While I would love to see more Review, just to see how in the hell it could write its way out of this hole, a larger part of me hopes this is the end. Watching Forrest struggle to understand life as he burns down his own has been a startling, singular experience. It would be fitting to end it on Forrest taking himself and his show down in the name of a review.
Catch up with all 19 episodes of Review at the Comedy Central website.