“Review” was one of the most pleasant TV surprises of 2014, not because we didn't expect fun stuff from star and producer Andy Daly, but because Comedy Central had sat on the show for nearly a year, and then premiered it with minimal fanfare.
What seemed like a dump job was instead a delight: a sort of serialized sketch comedy show, held together by Daly as “reviewer of life” Forrest MacNeil, a blandly cheerful doofus willing to experience and then review whatever his audience asked him to. Over the course of the first season, Forrest got addicted to cocaine, ate 15 pancakes in one sitting, had to divorce his wife, then eat 30 pancakes in one sitting, accidentally caused his father-in-law to die in outer space, possibly killed another driver in a road rage incident, and bit by bit watched his entire life burn to the ground for the sake of the show. It was uncomfortable, hilarious, and utterly brilliant. Here's a sample from season 1:
Now the show is back for a second season, tonight at 10. Though season 1 ended with Forrest punching out his producer Grant and quitting the show, season 2 opens with Forrest back on the job, eager as ever to be victimized by his own fans.
The premiere guest stars Allison Tolman from “Fargo” as Forrest's new girlfriend; it's wonderful, as are the other two episodes Comedy Central screened for critics. Last week I spoke with Daly (after previously discussing season 1 with him in Austin last summer) about how they approached season 2 after having nearly a year off between end of production on one season and the start of writing the next.
You're coming back after a long time off, you've seen how people reacted to the first season, and you have your own feelings about what worked and what didn't last time. Given all that, how is season 2 different from season 1?
Andy Daly: In season 1, we went in saying that the experiences Forrest has are going to be cumulative; we're never just going to hit the reset button, and it's all going to build up on him. But we didn't necessarily know the full arc of the season. We knew he was going to divorce his wife in episode 3, but I don't think we necessarily knew the extent to which she was going to be a character in the season, and that he was going to be propelled by a desire to win her back, and that was going to shape the narrative into the end of the season. We found that through the writing process. In season 2, we came in prepared to say, “What are the big benchmark moments for Forrest this season, and how can we sculpt our episodes and choose our reviews to best bring that out?” So we were able to be a bit more organized about it.
Without giving too much away, how would you describe what Forrest's arc for the new season is?
Andy Daly: He is trying to build a new life. In season 1, I think we saw Forrest with a pretty good, functioning, pre-existing life that “Review” destroyed. So season 2 finds him trying to build a new life, while simultaneously doing this show.
How is Forrest different as a result of his experiences last season?
Andy Daly: I think if anything, this season, Forrest is even more committed to this show. He left it, he had a moment of personal crisis. I think he feels guilty about it. He went into “Review” knowing it was going to be difficult, and I think he probably feels bad that he bailed on it at the end of season 1. So he's back now with an even greater commitment to this important community service that is “Review.”
We talked in Austin about the idea that the first season was being produced before anyone had seen it, yet Forrest was getting all these review submissions. Do the nature of the reviews change at all now that Forrest's audience has seen the lengths he'll go to?
Andy Daly: Yes, I think so. I think there was a little bit of an element in season 1 that the audience was fucking with Forrest, and if anything, that has only increased. I feel like the fictitious audience of Forrest's show has seen how far he'll go in season 1, and is like, “Well, would he go this far?”
You come right back with Forrest's first show since running away. Was there any talk of returning with another reviewer, or AJ doing the reviews, and it might take part of an episode or more to get him back? Or did you want to return to the status quo immediately?
Andy Daly: We definitely talked about that. We talked about every different possible way of jumping into the season. But we did feel like, let's just start in with the show as it is. Let's start with what “Review” is. Let's not do a false start of any kind. It's a little bit tricky. People often describe this show as a show within a show. But to me, it isn't that. It just is Forrest's show. Everything we're seeing is part of Forrest's show. There are no peers behind the curtain unless Forrest feels he has to show you his conversation with Grant in the context of his exploration of that topic. So what that means is, that we start back with Forrest in place, in the host's position, back doing his show. To the extent that we get to hear any backstory of how he got back there, it has to come about organically in the course of Forrest's exploration of the topics that he's been given. That's a little bit of an obstacle we've given ourselves, but it's kind of a fun puzzle.
Another thing we've talked about before is the question of how much his wife knew about the show and how it was influencing his behavior. Now the show has aired, and in the new season, he's dating Allison Tolman, and being followed around with cameras everywhere. What understanding does she have of what the show is, if any, when she gets caught up in one of his reviews?
Andy Daly: We first of all ask the audience to buy in that the cameras covering the action are extremely unobtrusive. They could be tiny little cameras you wouldn't necessarily notice, and the characters often don't see them. But someone who is intimately in Forrest's life the way Allison is and his father is, would obviously know the show is being made. But Forrest, part of his methodology is to never explain to people what he's doing, because that would affect the experiment. So, yes, would somebody say, “Oh, the fact that you're doing this very extreme thing to me might have something to do with the fact that cameras are covering us at all times.” We're asking the audience to buy that people are not necessarily making that connection. Perhaps Forrest has given a different explanation for why the cameras are there. Perhaps he's said a documentary is being made about the life of a reviewer. We never explicitly say what it is. We feel that Forrest would not necessarily get that deep into his process in the context of his show. He's just showing you the exploration of these topics. There isn't, for him, a need to show how the sausage is made.
You mentioned Forrest's father. I'm always happy to see Max Gail. How did you wind up casting him?
Andy Daly: Our casting director suggested a whole bunch of wonderful actors. There was a period of time where Forest was going to have a mom and a dad, but the characters were feeling redundant. At that point, she showed us a whole bunch of incredible, great actors of that age range. And when Max Gail came up, I said, “I always loved him so much in 'Barney Miller.'” And then I watched him in the movie “42,” and he's so wonderful in that, so sweet and good-natured and real and grounded. Given where we want to take Forrest's relationship with his father over the course of the season, all of those qualities seemed very important. We went with Max. He's hilarious and a truly great and fascinating person.
Season 1 ends with Forrest punching out Grant, and want nothing to do with Grant ever again. We return, and Grant is still the producer on the show. Will we be learning any more of how the rift healed? Or did his guilt over abandoning the show just cause him to forgive Grant for all his crimes against humanity?
Andy Daly: I think that Forrest does not see Grant as necessarily a malevolent force in his life. He did for a moment there. I think he has come to realize that Grant is someone who has been hired to help Forest realize the important vision of the show, and it's challenging. The show is challenging. It's not Grant. It's the show, and Grant is just part of it. None of this is Grant's fault. None of it is anybody's fault in Forrest's point of view. Importantly, at the end of season 1, Forest has come to understand that the show has come between himself and the woman that he loves, so he abandons the show in favor of her. The fact that we see him back in the host position at the beginning of season 2 means that something happened there, and that is something that we learn and we cover in the season. His attempt to run back to her obviously did not go as planned.
Jessica St. Clair has her own show (USA's “Playing House”) now. Was she less available to you than she was in the previous season?
Andy Daly: She was probably a little less available to us in season 2 than in season 1. But you definitely have not seen the last of her.
Where did the idea come from to give Forrest a couple of vetoes per season?
Andy Daly: We just started talking about what are some requests Forrest would make of Grant to make the experience a little more survivable, having been through the horrors of season 1? This was one idea I thought we could have fun with, and that Grant would happily sign off on, because it has a little of a game show aspect to it. Forrest is now allowed to veto two reviews, if something is too dangerous or too illegal or would hurt somebody he cares about too much, he is able to throw two reviews back. Our attitude toward it is that Forrest would not do this lightly. This is a big deal for him. He would probably love to get through the whole season without ever deploying these vetoes. But it's important to know that he has them.
It's not spoiling anything for me to assume that he's going to use up both and then suddenly really need one of them back for a really terrible review.
Andy Daly: (laughs) Your assumption of that does not constitute a spoiler, but I have no comment on that.
Getting back to how you decide on what reviews go in an an episode, “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes” was perfect in the way the three reviews tied into each other. I assume you have lots of different review ideas on the board. How do you decide which go in which episode? Does it ever come down to timing more than whether one concept fits with another?
Andy Daly: Timing is a big part of it. This season, our first step was to map out the big picture of what we saw happening to Forrest over the course of the season, and then to find reviews that could help us get there, and plug into the season as we go. And then it was a matter of saying, “If this one doesn't feel very active, then let's put one in that's a little more active, or transgressive, or outrageous…” Trying to pair things tonally in that way was a big part of it, and there were definitely times where, “This one is going to be meaty, and we're going to need a lot of time for it, so we have to pair it with things that are going to be smaller.” All of those are considerations. And then the consideration how given segments are going to tie into one another is sometimes the last thing we ask ourselves, actually. That's a fun thing to discover as you're coming up with beats for given pieces.
Just going back to season 1, what is an example of you putting three reviews together, and only at the very end figuring out how the third review will call back to the first?
Andy Daly: The perfect example of that is in our first episode, where in the first segment, Forrest learns how to pickpocket, and then in the third segment, his ability to pickpocket is pivotal to that last piece. That is not something we went into that episode hoping to accomplish. We just thought those segments made for a great first episode. And then somewhere in the writing process, I think that Gavin Steckler, who wrote the prom piece, came up with that notion that the pickpocketing that he did in the stealing segment could come back in that one. It's more fun to discover those things into the process of writing them than to necessarily start there.
You've been in the business a while and have a lot of relationships. So it's not like in season 1, you were some new guy begging for guest stars for your show. But I'm wondering now that “Review” has aired and been acclaimed, was it any easier to get guests to come in this time?
Andy Daly: Yeah, but we didn't reach for stars in huge ways. Actually, last season, reaching for Ashley Tisdale and Lance Bass, I can't think of examples of us doing that this season – having people play themselves as stars. We didn't quite feel the need to do that in season 2 to an extent. This season was more about bringing in people who we know are funny, and are friends, and who can play in the way we know they can play in the way that we want to play. We wanted to take more advantage of our ability to improvise in this season. So we wanted people who are strong in that way. Yeah, it was easy to get friends and comedy people and improvisers to come and play with us.
How much of season 1 was ultimately improvised?
Andy Daly: It's hard to say. In both seasons, we work real hard on the scripts. When we get into production, every script is on at least its third of fourth draft, but when we get to the set, crazy things happen. Sometimes we'll open the script and say, “No, I don't want to do that,” or “That no longer works where this is set.” We're constantly reconfiguring things even before the cameras start rolling. Jeff Blitz is on set directing every day, Andy Bliz is on set too, and those guys will come in and say, “This isn't working” or “I have a better idea,” so it's a real soup of different things. And there are certain scenes that are written perfectly and we do them that way, but we'll also do another take where we just screw around, and some of the best stuff comes out of that. It was the same process in season 1 as in season 2. I think there was no big shift in process. But what we learned in season 1 is that the editors gravitate toward those moments that are improvised and spontaneous, because they feel more grounded and are more right for our cinema verite style. So we went into season 2 knowing those worked best, and looking to do more.
What's a good example of something from season 1 that was improvised and made the final cut?
Andy Daly: The road rage smash-off, for instance, and even the scene leading up to that, where Forrest is asking Josh to make him angry, that was improvised. The smash-off, we knew the big beats of that – that it was going to be two guys smashing their own cars – but all of the dialogue in that was fully improvised. It's hard to pinpoint it, because there's a tremendous amount of improvised dialogue sprinkled into scripted dialogue.
Did you find making the show any easier this year? Or was it harder, because now you had this great first season to top?
Andy Daly: I think it might have been a little bit harder. Easier, in that we know what the show is and who the character is and how things go wrong for Forrest. We're not finding our way down those pathways. But there was definitely some pressure to not just make a show as great as one we made in season 1, but to make something new and different and to heighten it. But that was difficult, and we rather cockily gave ourselves not enough time to write this season. We felt like, “Ah, we've already done it; it'll all fall into place!” But these are hard episodes to write, because of all the ways the stories dovetail into one another. Everything you're seeing is something that Forrest asks you to see, and everything takes place in a grounded, realistic world so that the comic heights can be hit in a way that's satisfying. There's a lot of hard aspects to crafting these stories. It'll never be easy or go fast. Yeah, it was difficult, and it was stressful. And also, because this season, crazier things happen to Forrest, in production, it was more difficult on me as an actor.
Did you have to eat anything else unusual or unusually large in amount this time?
Andy Daly: No. I do eat something in season 2, but it's not an absurd amount of it. There is a short review that revolves around eating something. There is a review in our fourth episode that required an extreme amount of physical endurance that you will see. I will never forget it, and I will never do anything like it again.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org