How Comedy Central’s ‘Review’ became the most wonderfully dark show on TV

10.01.15 2 years ago 19 Comments

Comedy Central

Somehow, in a TV landscape where every cable channel, streaming service, gaming platform, and smart watch has to develop at least one grim and gritty drama series, the darkest show on television isn't “The Leftovers” or even “The Walking Dead,” but a silly, if stunningly committed, Comedy Central half-hour called “Review.”

The show, which just wrapped up its amazing second season, follows beige and bespectacled “reviewer of life” Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly, who also executive produces the show, which is adapted from an Australian comedy) as he is assigned experiences by his viewers – What's it like to join the Mile High Club? What's it like to catfish someone? – that he must then do and rate on a five-star scale. Over the course of the first season, we saw the show tear Forrest's life apart, as he had to divorce his wife, inadvertently got his ex-father-in-law killed, and was committed to a mental hospital (as part of his attempt to review “There all is aching”).

You wouldn't have thought things could get much worse for poor, oblivious Forrest in season 2, but you would be wrong. (Spoilers follow for the rest of this piece; Hulu is streaming the whole first season, while Comedy Central's website and app feature all 19 episodes so far.) This season, Forrest was shot (with both bullets and arrows), stabbed, lost at sea for months with nothing to eat but garbage, and buried alive. He was also responsible for the destruction of both of his father's homes, set up his ex-wife to fall in love with a philandering and temperamental baseball star, created a cult that grew out of control until all of its other members were massacred by police, killed a man himself, went to jail, and – perhaps most devastatingly of all, which is a mark of how strange and smart this show is – had to stand by and watch as other inmates “murdered” his imaginary best friend Clovers.

It is tragic, it is twisted, it is hilarious, and it never, ever flinches. At the end of the first season, I wondered if the show could possibly top itself, and it somehow did. Now I very desperately want Comedy Central to order a third season, just to see how much more carnage Forrest can unintentionally cause. Might one of his reviews trigger a world war? It no longer seems out of the realm of possibility.

While we wait for word on a third season, I interviewed Daly via email about many of the decisions that went into Forrest's epic trail of destruction, self or otherwise, in season 2.

Where do things stand right now with Comedy Central? Do you have any idea what they're thinking about a season 3?

Andy Daly: All I know is that everyone I've talked to at the network loves the show and is proud of it and thrilled by the response. Beyond that, we haven't talked about the future. Last season we didn't hear anything until a few weeks after the finale so that might be the case again.

What are your own thoughts about a season 3? I might wonder if you could possibly do anything worse to Forrest than what happened this year, but I thought much the same thing at the end of season 1. Do you have any tentative plans for it if there's a renewal? Or do you feel like you may have used up the idea?

Andy Daly: It sounds like you're underestimating Forrest's ability to ruin things. Big mistake, Alan!  I have no doubt that we could do much more with this concept and take this character to more terrible and hilarious places (hilarrible? terrilarius?). And I love the show and playing Forrest so much that I hope we get the chance. Some ideas have been kicked around but I won”t share them here of course and anyway, the fun really starts when we get the team together in a room with a wall full of review topics and start making each other laugh.  

Continuing on this theme, this was a pretty horrifying year in the life of Forrest MacNeil. When and how did you decide that so many awful things would happen to him at once? Some of the reviews like the William Tell and murder lent themselves to horrible outcomes, but the rowboat one did not, and that was among the very worst for him.

Andy Daly: I don't remember a conscious decision to make things go so badly for Forrest this season. We came in knowing that it's fun to watch this idiot suffer and that Review is inherently a wrecking ball in his life and in the lives of those around him and we settled on the idea pretty early that Forrest would spend the first half of the season trying to build a new life and the second half trying to rebuild his old one. We knew the show (and Forrest own ineptitude) would thwart both efforts and from there it was just a matter of pitching ways that would happen. New girlfriends are sacrificed to the show, homes are destroyed, a loyal parent is tormented. That things got so violent and awful just speaks, I think, to the comedic instinct to always heighten the joke, to outdo ourselves and to continue to surprise the audience. But I also think that when Forrest agreed to come back to this show, knowing as he did then what this show was, he made himself a ripe target for more comeuppance.

Did you ever have pause about whether this season was perhaps too dark, given all of the death and destruction? Or was this the only direction the story could go after last year?

Andy Daly: I don't recall any pause about too much darkness!  Either from us or the network who were, I must mention, phenomenally supportive of everything we wanted to do this season. Honestly, I only remember people laughing at dark suggestions.  I don”t know what”s wrong with us but I think our creative team was totally united in the belief that it”s hilarious to watch bad things happen to this dope. The worse the better!  Jeff Blitz and I – he runs the show with me – did occasionally wonder if Forrest was too unsympathetic or bordering on psychopathic or if the show was too sad in places, but we were always able to address those concerns, to our own satisfaction anyway.  I can tell you that we did occasionally worry that we were going too far too soon with the “Cult, Perfect Body” episode. It's so insane and so catastrophic and it's only four episodes into the season!  But I love that all that death and destruction and insanity represents a crescendo in Forrest's failure to start a new life, one that leads naturally into the renewed pursuit of Suzanne.  I think it works well and is one of our funnest episodes.

In the finale, Forrest comes to blame Grant for all his troubles, while Suzanne points out that he has only himself to blame for his devotion to the show. We saw in the murder episode and at times in this one that Grant certainly doesn't mind pushing Forrest to do awful things; how much should we blame him for what's become of our hero?

Andy Daly: I think a fun thing about the season finale is that we, the audience, are left with some questions. Forrest seems like he might be on the right trail before the fear and the lack of sleep and his total unwillingness to accept the blame that Suzanne lays at his feet cause him to lose the thread and hatch his dimwitted Gretchen theory. He posed some pretty good questions along the way though. Are the review requests really randomly generated?  Does Grant like putting Forrest in jeopardy?  Grant is clearly manipulative and malevolent, but how far does that go?  Those may be things to keep playing with in the future.  But for now, I think it's safe to say that Suzanne is right. Forrest signed on to an insane show and keeps putting it ahead of everything else. Regardless of whatever Grant is doing, to paraphrase from our season 1 Get Rich Quick segment, Forrest did this to himself.

Two more on Suzanne: first, what exactly happened between the two of them in between seasons? We know it didn't work out, which is why he went back to the show, but what went down?

Andy Daly: Is it okay to say we don”t know exactly what happened?  We know that in the season 1 finale, Suzanne said “if we”re going to be a family again, I need to know there are limits to what you”ll do for this show” and then Forrest demonstrated that he couldn”t or wouldn”t limit himself like that, so she walked out on him for good.  He later changed his mind, quit the show and ran after her.  So why didn”t it work out?  Was his insistence on continuing to speak in an Irish brogue at that crucial moment unforgivable to her because it seemed to reveal something basic in his nature? Did she take him back for a while and then watch the show and decide that his decision-making is fundamentally flawed in dangerous ways that she can”t be a part of, show or no show?    Maybe we”d learn more in future seasons but we haven”t established it yet.  What we have established is that Suzanne rejected him before he was found in that crawlspace and came crawling back to Review.

Also, Suzanne seems to know more about the nature of the show this season than last. She's not thrown when Forrest shows her all the information about the reviews. At what point did she find out?

Andy Daly: I think she watched season 1 when it aired in Forrest”s universe.  She knows what this show is and is glad to have it out of her life.  

How much did you have to debate the presence of the cameras for things like the jail episode or the conspiracy one, where he's actively trying to get away from the show? In both cases, it's acknowledged how they're there, but did you have to say, “Okay, a prison wouldn't actually let these guys in, but we need it for the show”?

Andy Daly: There was an early draft of the prison episode where we spent a lot of time explaining how we”re seeing all of this, smuggled in cameras and whatnot, but we always feel like it just isn”t fun to deal that much with the mechanics.  So instead, we simply had Grant say “great news, we got permission to shoot here”.  Given the reality of Locked Up-style behind bars docu-series, I don”t think that”s too much of a stretch.  For the conspiracy episode, Forrest doesn”t decide to ditch the cameras until he drives away at the end.  Up until then, he”s still addressing the camera, still making his TV show.  He”s hiding out from Grant and the rest of his office staff but, perhaps stupidly, doesn”t see the camera crew as a threat.  For all we know, they may have had some kind of off-camera exchange that set his mind at ease.  But that”s also just part of who Forrest is.  Even as he”s becoming convinced that this show is trying to kill him, he still has a job to do and he”s doing it.  And then when he finally does ditch the camera crew, it marks a new high point in his fear and mania, which is best saved till late in the episode I reckon.  So yes, we did discuss all of that, but we never want the show to get bogged down in it.

As we talked about at the start of the season, I think everybody knew Forrest was going to misuse a veto and not have it when he desperately needed it. How many other ideas were pitched before you came down on procrastination as the wasted one? 

Andy Daly: I don”t remember any honestly but I”ll bet there were others.  There may have even been three vetoes at one point.  My addled brain can”t remember all of what was discussed there.  Sorry!  But I love Procrastination because I always like when Forrest is stuck in a logic trap.  “If you quit Review, you won”t be able to review the experience of quitting because you”ll no longer be a life reviewer”, stuff like that. That piece, There All Is Aching and Giving Something Six Stars are all fun examples of that and I”d put Procrastination on that list, assignments that challenge the very nature of the show and reveal the whole exercise to be flawed in ways that Forrest can”t or won”t consider.

You said that last year, the orgy was the most physically difficult one for you to do. What was it this year?

Andy Daly: Plenty of candidates this year.  It was really quite difficult to walk around on my knees for the Little Person segment and it was truly awful to wear that goddamned rubber suit for Perfect Body, especially running around in that battle scene in the hot hot sun.  And the Pillow Fight sequence was also hard physical work under a really blinding and hot sun.  I got hit with a rubber prop baton many many times and though it”s obviously a lot better than a real one, my arm was bruised and tender for a while after that.  But I, like Forrest, have no doubt that the pain was well worth it.  An unexpectedly enjoyable thing to shoot was the Buried Alive segment.  For the final shot where I claw out of the grave, I had to be put in an actual wooden box that was really covered with dirt in a real grave that had been dug in an actual cemetery.  And I loved it!  It was the most complete darkness I have ever been in and it was at once totally relaxing and exhilarating.  I know how demented that sounds!  I am not a life reviewer but if I were I would give being buried alive all the stars.  Do it!

AJ got some more highlights this year, particularly in her excitement about the veto, but she still only gets seen within the context of filming things in the studio. Why don't we see her around the office like Grant and everyone else? Have you talked about what she does while Forrest is off ruining his life again?

Andy Daly: There have been various ideas pitched about seeing AJ out of the studio.  Possibly we”ll get into that in future episodes, but I don”t think we”d ever see her hanging around the office.  She”s too glamorous for the dull earth tones and office supplies feel of that world.  But I should say I”m somewhat torn between seeing AJ out in the world and maintaining AJ as enigma, and that reminds me of an early pitch from Kevin Dorff, one of our writers, that AJ only ever appear as a giant face on a giant screen behind Forrest.  Forrest would never know her name or even where she was.  I”m glad we didn”t go that way but it still makes me laugh.

Talk me through the development of the Clovers story and the decision to have the other cons “murder” Clovers rather than trying to shiv Forrest, which is what most of us assumed would happen.

Andy Daly: The idea of making Forrest review experiences behind bars came up early in our process. It”s actually the way the Australian version of Review ends, with their main character, Myles Barlow, struggling to carry on as life reviewer while being abused by a large cell mate.  Believe it or not, we even considered having our entire second season take place behind bars, Forrest having been sentenced for crimes committed during season 1!  That seemed a little too crazy so we settled for one episode there.  The room pitched different review topics that it would be fun to see Forrest have to handle in jail and the idea of him interacting with an imaginary friend was especially funny to us.  Then, through the process of brainstorming beats, we decided that the other prisoners would a) think he was crazy and b) decide to mess with him for sport by appearing to accept the reality of the friend and communicating with him themselves.  Then next logical idea – to us anyway – was that a real sense of competition and power struggle would arise over this non-existent person.  Andy Blitz wrote the script for that episode and did such a great job of escalating the conflict between Forrest and Cassius and, of course, the great Ian Roberts, who played Cassius, committed to the seriousness of it all perfectly.  I”m sure none of us ever considered that Forrest would be shivved.  The misdirect was fun to play and really seems to have lured a lot of people in, but the game we were playing was a struggle over Clovers where these adults were pretending together that this figment existed.  The highest height that joke can reach, it seems to me, is the killing of Clovers.  Plus, we liked the move of having Forrest, in this one episode, lose Suzanne and Eric and then his father and then also Clovers.  Somehow it”s that last, stupid loss that seems to hit the hardest, because it breaks the emotional dam for him.  Oh and also Forrest already got stabbed in episode 5.  Gotta mix up the injuries, y”know. 

How popular is the show within the show at this point? Has anyone yet pitched a whole story where Forrest runs across a fan of the show in the process of doing a review, or would that be the show disappearing too far up its own rear end at that point?

Andy Daly: We've definitely decided that the show has aired and that that has had an impact. Forrest tells us in episode 1 that viewer emails inspired him to come back, Suzanne now knows what he's up to and you can have something like Forrest being recognizable to the kid who asked him to review Sleeping With Your Teacher.  But we don't think the show is very popular. Whenever this kind of issue would come up in our writers room, I would tell people how often I am approached on the street by people who know me from “Review.” If Forrest's show is as well known as mine, let's just say he can make it through the average day without being mobbed by admirers!  But also this is one of those times when our format – that the show you are seeing is Forrest's show as he would like you to see it – gives us some control over these questions, because Forrest's show would edit out moments when people said “hey aren't you the guy from 'Review'?” (unless that occurrence was germane to the topic at hand).  But as our season finale demonstrates, I have no problem with this show disappearing up its own ass. Maybe Forrest could review “what's it like to disappear up your own ass?” in season 3. Another troublesome logic trap!

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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