It’s nearly impossible to offer a spoiler-free review of the new Amazon series Forever, starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, because even the premise itself is a spoiler. The first three episodes each work to convince viewers we’re watching one kind of television show, only for the script to flip and suddenly throw us into a completely different kind of show. Forever is that strange creature of streaming television: a romantic comedy with dramatic plot twists. But here the plot twists don’t just shift the narrative; they morph the very nature of characters’ relationships to each other and to the reality they inhabit.
The most benign description that can be made about the premise is that June (Rudolph) and Oscar (Armisen) have fallen into a rut of staleness and routine in their marriage, a rut that grates on June infinitely harsher than Oscar. She’s torn between her desire for new experiences and her commitment to Oscar. The moral axis of the show thus turns on the existential dilemma between stasis and change, where personal fulfillment is measured against the life you’ve built for yourself and the life you never got to lead.
Riverside, California, where June and Oscar reside, epitomizes, in all its sprawling, suburban splendor, the monotony that plagues the couple. But, of course, monotony hardly makes for engaging TV. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “You can never step into the same river twice,” so with every episode, viewers return to a Riverside somehow altered — characters come and go, environments change, certain laws of physics apply while others do not. These escalating shifts in the show’s structure, typically introduced at the close of each episode, make for a television formula of perfect binge-ability. We are left so unsure about the state of things in the present that we’re inexorably drawn into the future in search of resolution (which, in this case, means not putting up a fight when Amazon auto-plays the next episode).
The minds behind Forever are two Parks and Recreation alums, Alan Yang, also known for Master of None, and Matt Hubbard, who wrote for 30 Rock as well. With such a pedigree behind them, their writing for Rudolph and Armisen now seems like the most natural thing in the world. And it feels that way, too. The easy chemistry between Rudolph and Armisen, born over years of friendship and overlapping stints at Saturday Night Live, elevates Forever to a realism that consistently allows for dual notes humor and pathos. Their marriage has the hallmarks of honest, prolonged intimacy, including a secret love language that is both endearing and nauseating, put on display surely not for its entertainment value but instead for its voyeuristic authenticity.
Neither Rudolph nor Armisen plays against type, and both stars quickly disappear into their roles. Armisen is delightful as earnest, effeminate, neat-freak Oscar, but it’s his character’s constancy that allows Rudolph’s June to explore a wider range of emotion. The journey of Forever belongs to her, as she oscillates between fear and courage, shrinking from life or embracing it. June’s two best friends throughout the season attest to the dynamism of her character. One is played by Kym Whitley: flamboyant, buxom, full of life; the other, Catherine Keener: sullen, abrasive, disaffected. Both mentor June through difficult trials, and her ability to dabble in these polar-opposite worldviews makes her more than just a cypher for existential longing; it makes her a real human being grasping to meet the complexity of life with a complexity of her own.
At bottom, Forever is a high-concept domestic dramedy about intimacy and partnership, where mundane choices have cosmic consequences. It may be true that how you love is how you live, but that doesn’t provide any answers. It only starts the questions.