For about 20 seconds at the end of its second episode, Netflix’s Unstable stops trying to be funny. Jackson Dragon (John Owen Lowe) has been coerced into moving back in with his father, biotech entrepreneur Ellis Dragon (Rob Lowe), and almost despite himself, he’s started using some of his own scientific smarts to help his dad deliver a big project. Jackson has long lived on the other side of the country, trying to work as a professional flutist. He's spent the last year avoiding his grief for his dead mother, but once he's back at home, he can’t ignore those feelings. When he finds a small memento that reminds him of his mom, the sadness comes pouring out. This makes Jackson, and by extension the entire series, feels grounded in something real.
That never happens again. The rest of the series is so aggressively zany that it resists emotions altogether. And if it were built like Arrested Development or Veep or some other show where sentimental moments are never the point, then this restless joking could be a strength. However, Unstable keeps trying to insert tenderness into the gags, particularly as Jackson and Ellis work on their relationship. Yet beyond that one, brief exception, the gentleness never gets space to breathe. We barely have time to hear Ellis say something sweet about his boy before he’s back to discussing a guided meditation about the monkeys who visit his inner child.
Ellis himself is the biggest obstacle to the story. He’s described as a genius who can turn greenhouse gasses into eco-friendly concrete, but the elder Lowe (henceforth called Rob) plays him as a vapid Zoolander model who somehow wandered into a lab. There’s a detached quality to his performance, as though he’s memorized his long, eccentric speeches without considering what they mean. Even when Ellis is supposed to be a raging narcissist whose judgmental attitude makes Jackson feel terrible about himself, Rob makes him seem too spacey to hurt anyone. It’s disorienting to hear other characters describe a character that’s so unlike the one that’s actually on screen.
John Owen’s performance isn’t much stronger. Other than two indie films and a guest arc on his dad’s sitcom The Grinder, he doesn’t have any screen credits, and he hasn’t developed the nuance required to find a human core inside a show that includes a subplot about Ellis’ enemies reenacting Pilgrim times on their nights off from attending sex parties. An actor like Jason Bateman could find world-weariness and paternal affection inside the hijinks on Arrested Development, but John Owen is mostly limited to startled discomfort and grumbling frustration.
It’s possible the Lowes needed a stronger hand on the show’s rudder. They created the series together, along with Victor Fresco (Santa Clarita Diet), and in interviews, they make the process sound like a parade of barbed wisecracks and fraught bonding exercises. But while Rob has been a producer on projects, he’s never been a co-creator before. And while John Owen has written several dozen episodes of 9-1-1: Lone Star (starring his father), he’s never been the head writer. It seems they weren’t ready to take charge.
The supporting actors are left to fill the void created by the writing and the lead performances. As Anna, Ellis’ right-hand woman, Fleabag’s Sian Clifford fares best, dipping her lines in acid as she tries to keep her distractible colleagues from ruining the business. Rachel Marsh and Emma Ferreira also have a zesty chemistry as a pair of scientists who judge everyone working outside their lab. It’s too bad they get stuck in a predictable love triangle that barely moves an inch from the pilot to the season finale. They thrive as science divas, not lonely singles looking for romance.
But the love triangle is hardly the most onerous subplot: In every episode, there’s an anxious storyline about Ellis losing his company, mostly because his board is tired of waiting for his next billion-dollar idea. But that’s an empty threat. Even with the father-son dynamic, Unstable is still a workplace comedy. If the company really did go down, then every character but Jackson and Ellis would become redundant. And since this isn’t a series that’s going to take the Good Place-style risk of upending its central premise, it’s tedious to hear about a crisis that’s never going to materialize. Without Ellis’ company, there’s no show. Everyone’s stress is as unconvincing as the other so-called feelings on the screen.
Unstable premieres March 30 on Netflix. 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.