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Patricia Arquette and Ben Stiller Have Made Their Meanest Comedy Ever

Apple TV+'s High Desert has plenty of bad behavior and very little heart.
  • Patricia Arquette in High Desert (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Patricia Arquette in High Desert (Photo: Apple TV+)

    Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette have been telling stories together for decades, including on the recent, Emmy-anointed dramas Severance and Escape at Dannemora. But on their Apple TV+ series High Desert, they reach all the way back to the gonzo vibe of Flirting With Disaster, the 1996 David O. Russell film they starred in when they were at the peak of their underground cool. That movie is nominally about a man looking for his birth parents, but the plot is just a setup for increasingly outrageous comic setpieces, including a session of sensual armpit licking and an after-dinner conversation about the pertness of a senior citizen’s bosom. It’s edgy, intelligent, and funny, and it springs to mind as Arquette storms through High Desert, counseling a friend about her botched boob job or stealing pills from a TV news anchor turned spiritual guru. In both cases, the characters are always just an impulse away from upending the social order.

    But while it has Flirting With Disaster’s bravura, High Desert has none of its ease. Instead, it’s like the loudest person at the frat party, forever proving how wild it can be. Arquette’s character Peggy, for instance, is ostensibly a recovering drug addict who decides to turn her life around and become a private investigator after her beloved mother Rosalyn (Bernadette Peters) dies. Mostly, though, she’s a collection of quirks. In the show’s first scene, we see her holding court over Thanksgiving dinner at her mansion, until she winds up screaming and flushing drugs when the cops raid the place. Then we flash forward a few years to find her barely scraping by, playing the saloon keeper in a Wild West reenactment theme park. And in case that’s not kooky enough, she also scams her way into that PI job, falls asleep in her car after the roof gets sheared off by a semi, and stumbles into an art forgery scam that involves a notorious crime family.

    It’s just so much. And that doesn’t even include supporting characters like Bob (Rupert Friend), the aforementioned guru who gets his nipple cut off by a thug’s vicious daughter; Bruce (Brad Garrett), a hapless investigator who’s also trying to run an eBay business; or Peggy’s husband Denny (Matt Dillon), an ex-con who has the bright idea to put a recording device in a dog’s collar so he can surveil his enemies. Arquette and Stiller produce the show with series creators Nancy Fichman, Katie Ford, and Jennifer Hoppe, and the central premise is reportedly based on Fichman’s actual sister Marjorie. But with so many shenanigans happening at all times, High Desert never feels the slightest bit real.

    Nor does it have any joy, which is actually a crucial ingredient in outrageous comedy. The guys on Jackass always seem like they’re enjoying their puerile stunts. Melissa McCarthy’s character on Bridesmaids has the swagger of someone who loves her life, and no matter how bananas their New York adventures become, Abbie and Alana get a kick out of each other on Broad City. By contrast, the characters on High Desert act like they hate each other and themselves. The episodes are a barrage of screaming, insults, and threats, and whenever someone does laugh, it’s part of a scheme to manipulate someone else by appearing to be friendly. Because there’s no happiness and precious little kindness, High Desert becomes a relentless portrait of depravity. It’s spiritually draining, even more so because it’s framed as an amusement.

    This is surprising because Stiller and Arquette’s other collaborations have real heart. Their characters really do love each other in Flirting With Disaster, and even within the taut drama of Escape at Dannemora, Arquette’s morally compromised prison guard has the vulnerability of someone desperate to be loved. Meanwhile, series director Jay Roach worked with Stiller on the Meet the Parents films, which proved that loving, gentle people could be the center of raucous comedies. Meanwhile, High Desert seems determined to repel our empathy.

    That’s apparent in its boldest narrative choice. Along with playing Rosalyn in flashbacks, Bernadette Peters plays Georgia, an actress Peggy meets who just happens to be her mother’s doppelgänger. This trippy conceit could reveal deep things about Peggy and her family, but instead of digging into its possibilities, the series lets it dissolve into the background. Ultimately, Georgia is reduced to a running gag. Emotional heft is sacrificed on the altar of nipple jokes.

    High Desert premieres May 17 on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: High Desert, Apple TV+, Ben Stiller, Bernadette Peters, Jay Roach, Patricia Arquette