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B.J. Novak's The Premise goes nowhere as a wannabe Black Mirror for the millennial set

  • "The Premise refers to itself as 'An Anthology of Now,' which in practice means that it trades in irony-laden stories about modern technology, social justice, school shootings, celebrity, and social media," says Nick Schager. "Being timely, however, isn’t worth much, unless a show also has something insightful or amusing to say about its chosen subjects. That turns out to be the main problem with B.J. Novak’s new FX on Hulu series, a tepid collection of sketchy notions in search of an overriding purpose or unanticipated point of view. Novak enlists a formidable cast for The Premise, whose guiding m.o. is to establish a scenario and then upend initial expectations about its characters and outcome. Yet to successfully do that requires an ingenuity largely absent from these stand-alone tales, all of which are destined to end in one of two equally ponderous and/or preachy ways. For climactic ironic twists to work in such a format, they have to surprise—turning the tables not only on the fictional players, but on the audience’s assumptions, prejudices and confidence about the nature of the game being played. Here, though, what one largely gets is a pointed setup that develops along a straight line, with any occasional left turns so foreseeable and pedestrian that they do nothing to unsettle, stun or excite." Schager adds: "Aiming to be a Black Mirror for the millennial set (except with Novak introducing each episode à la The Twilight Zone), The Premise gets nowhere trying to mine nuggets of wisdom from tales that feel half-formed at best. Superficially outrageous but not shocking, ironic but not startling, comical but not humorous, and self-important but not consequential, The Premise has weighty concerns on its mind, but precious little idea about what to do with them."


    • The Premise's title feels like an ironic one, because exactly what the show is about, and why, proves so elusive: "FX’s press notes describe it as a 'curated collection of character-driven episodes (that) challenges our shared morality tales, choosing art over argument, as it engages with the most relevant and meaningful issues of the modern era,'" says Alan Sepinwall. "That is a collection of words that seem more or less in order, but don’t say a lot. The tagline, 'An Anthology of Now,' feels like the kind of smug marketing catchphrase that Novak’s Office character, Ryan Howard, might have dreamed up during his Dunder Mifflin Infinity phase. An overarching premise can always be a challenge with episodic anthologies, where the cast and setting change from one installment to the next, but there’s usually some kind of clear thematic link between all the disparate ideas — as the writer Daniel M. Lavery once joked, every episode of Black Mirror is 'What if phones, but too much?' — which The Premise doesn’t quite have. The five episodes critics were given for review are only slightly more helpful in figuring out what it is that Novak and his collaborators are trying to do. Across these installments, The Premise reveals itself to be a collection of short stories about modern life. Some are broadly comic, some intensely dramatic, some merely whimsical in a New Yorker kind of way. They can be exasperating and confusing, but also intriguing. At times, it’s god-awful, and at others genuinely good. But the shifts in tone and execution from episode to episode — or even scene to scene within certain episodes — feel incredibly jarring, even when The Premise seems close to achieving its full potential."
    • Mostly, The Premise feels like a collection of short films about the ways navigating the world as a white person of privilege has recently become tricky: "Its stories derive their tension from shifting dynamics of power and privilege," says Joshua Rivera. "A young keyboard warrior (Ben Platt) gets to put his money where his mouth is, but at the cost of his dignity. Is that fair? If a comfortable, reasonably successful writer (Lola Kirke) has her bubble of affirmation pierced by a mean Instagram commenter, should that commenter be confronted with the emotional toll they caused? Almost all of these conflicts are the result of privilege being confronted by those outside of it. Nearly all of them are personal in their stakes and concerns. Only one, 'Moment of Silence,' which tackles the gun lobby, really wrestles with an institution. The stories weigh the morality of individual actions in a world that the powerful made asymmetrical. There are sparks of brilliance in every episode, fantastic confrontations that are both understated and cathartic. They’re remarkably well set up, given the episodes’ 30-minute runtime. But while that brevity is great for The Premise’s provocations, it does a disservice to its subject matter. The bigness of the issues collide against the smallness of the format, reducing each story to an empathy test. Each episode asks whether you can see why each character played by a famous actor did the things you just saw."
    • The Premise is full of tedious thought exercises with nothing to say: "Ten minutes into B.J. Novak’s The Premise, a deeply annoying white man throws out a suggestion: 'Maybe we could all just play devil’s advocate for a second?' In truth, though, he needn’t have bothered," says Angie Han. "He’s already a character on a series whose entire reason for being is just playing devil’s advocate for a second, doling out bite-size stories meant to illustrate modern moral dilemmas. But as with most endeavors involving the phrase 'devil’s advocate,' the hypothetical contortions get old quick. The half-hour anthology series suffers from an inability to take most of its own thought exercises all that seriously, resulting in logical inconsistencies, tonal unevenness and no small amount of smugness. It’s quick to raise hot-button topics like social media, social justice, gun control, bullying and fame. But in the five episodes sent to critics, The Premise seems to prefer snarking from the sidelines to getting its hands dirty digging in."
    • B.J. Novak works hard to provoke, but rarely manages to elegantly present something truly unexpected: "Unfortunately, the fatal flaw of the series lies right in the title," says Taylor Bennett. "While The Premise advertises itself as 'character-driven,' in reality the stories are plot driven, ending on a 'moment' or a particular line that feels entirely backwards-engineered to stick that landing. Too many of the main characters are cyphers existing to underline some point made in a monologue, or a rant that is meant to confront the moral quandary of the explored topic. The worst example comes in 'Social Justice Sex Tape' where Ben Platt plays an inept dudebro whose sex tape ends up being integral in proving the innocence of a framed Black activist. His social justice impulse to do the 'right thing' leads to his humiliation by the prosecution, defense, and a string of former girlfriends on the stand as they detail his sexual deficiencies. Unable to take any more, he erupts with a rant about how being f-ed by the justice system or the social justice system are now one in the same. It’s a highly scripted moment without an organic bone in its body, but those words are needed to get to the point of the episode. And while the eventual point presented is valid, the ridiculous court scenes and ham-fisted outbursts used to get there are narratively sloppy and weirdly immature rather than truly funny."  Bennett adds: "The ultimate worthiness of The Premise taking up your time is going to be based on your individual patience level for uneven storytelling. And that’s a shaky premise to build a series upon."
    • The Premise tries too hard and, too often, fails: "There’s something off about almost all of it, including the project’s thinly stretched attempts at humor and ideas that get so muddled, it’s unclear what point has been made by the end of each episode," says Jen Chaney. "Novak, who has written two engaging, best-selling books since his time on The Office — the short-story collection One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories and the children’s offering The Book With No Pictures — wrote all of the episodes and directed the second and third. (He co-wrote the first episode with journalist Josie Duffy Rice and the fourth with Jia Tolentino.) Like many of the narratives in One More Thing, the pieces of The Premise skewer American culture via bizarre scenarios that take elements of reality and heighten them for satirical and/or extra-dramatic purposes. But unlike the stories in that published work, which were often imaginative and told with dry humor, these televised takes go way over the top, straining the bounds of believability and losing their threads halfway through, if not sooner."
    • Great performances can’t overcome weak scripts, strung together with ideas that sometimes feel like first drafts: "Much of The Premise is meant to be humorous, in the vein of a whimsically absurd New Yorker piece, so some exaggeration for comic effect is to be expected. But Novak’s jokes (if they are jokes… it’s unclear what we’re supposed to think about the whole 'Miss Generational Inspiration' thing) often feel more like a means to a narrative end than hilarious goofs or witty insights. They’re a few degrees sillier than they need to be, perhaps because Novak only has 30 minutes to get to the point of his story. Too often with The Premise, these miscues compound, as in the excruciating 'Social Justice Sex Tape'—the show’s first episode, for some reason. The story (co-written by Novak and Josie Duffy Rice) is the most New Yorker-like in concept, with Ben Platt playing Ethan, a compulsive 'virtue signaler' who uncovers the video evidence that could free an imprisoned Black man. Only, Ethan finds it in the background of an erotic selfie in which his crudely sexist language and borderline racist behavior falls well below the standard of an 'ally.' In the ensuing trial, both the prosecution and the defense scrutinize Ethan’s public and private personas, in ways far removed from anything that would happen in an actual courtroom. (There’s Novak taking comedic liberties again.) These surface-level attacks on both 'social justice warriors' and their nitpicking critics ultimately prove to be more smug, sour, and depressing than amusing or enlightening."
    • The Premise is problematic but has promise: "As the tagline for The Premise tells us, this is 'An Anthology of Now,'" says Richard Roeper. "Shew. That’s a bit pretentious and there’s a lot to unpack, and there are wide fluctuations in the quality and effectiveness of these message-heavy stories in the five episodes provided to critics. While some chapters are told in broad, mostly comedic strokes that result in hit-and-miss storytelling, the most effective episodes play out in more dramatic and realistic fashion."
    • Just one of The Premise's episodes actually works: "Only one episode here seems to get at what The Premise was trying to do — create, through storytelling ratcheted past the point of plausibility, a situation that places a frame around certain intractable sensations of living in this moment," says Daniel D'Addario. "Jon Bernthal plays a grieving father whose family was torn apart by gun violence; he goes to work, in what is heavily telegraphed as a kamikaze mission, for a fictionalized version of the NRA. While guns are not a brand-new phenomenon in American life, a sort of sanctimonious, two-faced pity on the part of the firearm lobby for the victims of these weapons has come to be a part of daily life, and this series diagnoses that well; so, too, does it give Bernthal, a gifted actor, a chance to play shades of grief and rage hidden within doing what it takes to get by in a job he hates."
    • While The Premise is uneven, it's more hit than miss: "B.J. Novak’s new anthology series The Premise is something of a hot-button Black Mirror, in that it takes different major topics and explores them over 30 minutes with twisty, sometimes funny narratives," says Nick Allen. "But while the similarities to that Netflix hit are evident, the excitement of The Premise is in how it seems to create its own type of anthology feel, getting you to think about numerous different ideas while relying on character-driven satire. Sometimes it seems like one episode's topics were pulled from a hat, and that the writers were challenged with ways to combine them all and create purpose. With these guiding values, The Premise is the rare type of anthology that's far more hit than miss—if one piece of an episode doesn't work, there's something else happening on screen that will keep you watching. " Allen adds: "In the five episodes that were given to press from the anthology series, it becomes apparent that the episodes that are the least challenging are the least effective, however relatable they might be."
    • Why B.J. Novak considers The Premise his dream show: "My two dreams when I was growing up were to be a talk show host, like David Letterman — or really like Don Francisco on the show Sábado Gigante — or to be a filmmaker, a writer/director," he says. "Then, in college, I saw The Twilight Zone and thought, 'That’s it! I should do that, but for comedy. I can proudly, excitedly, be a host of the things I most want to write.' I also love short-form, and I think that there’s a whole new desire for a different kind of story. I think we’re ready for stories that are more the length of say, Black Mirror, which I like so much, that are just really intense, compact stories."
    • Novak on working with the late Ed Asner on The Premise: “He was really wonderful and inspiring to work with,” Novak said on Late Night of Asner, who recently died at age 91. “He would rest between takes. We asked a lot of him. It was quite a role, but he wanted to do it.”

    TOPICS: The Premise, FX on Hulu, B.J. Novak