In his new FX anthology show The Premise, creator and writer B.J. Novak explores human impulse through the lens of sex and social media. While it might read as a more lighthearted facsimile of Netflix’s future-minded behemoth Black Mirror, Novak’s pursuit is based firmly in the present, with an outlook that leans more humanist than the long-running techno-philosophical series.
The Premise finds a cohesive through-line in our collective need for intimacy and care in a social hierarchy dominated by the internet, where we are both more connected and more isolated than ever. The self-contained stories in each half-hour episode navigate sociopolitical landmines like gun lobbying, police cover-ups, A-list and D-list celebrity worship, respectively, and, perhaps most notably, butt plugs. And while it’s clear that Novak has a take on the big topics, his script largely serves as a canvas for a cadre of quick-witted, deliciously entertaining characters—played by titans like Lucas Hedges, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Dae Kim, Kaitlyn Dever, and Tracee Ellis Ross.
In keeping with the show’s title, The Premise presents a series of what-ifs, grounded in equal parts realism and absurdity, that feel ripped from late-night Twitter and Reddit threads. The yarns here feel familiar: the cost of fighting for causes built on an online persona, how social media has affected the way we see real-life relationships, and how our sexual impulses and proclivities can be empowering yet easily manipulated. Novak, who is known for his comedy writing, doesn’t shy away from the ridiculous, and it's clear that The Office and Mindy Project alum’s knack for timing and tension is easily his most resume-ready transferable skill. The script twists around drama-comedy corners in an altogether promising showcase of dexterity.
One crucial difference between Novak’s work and other Big Idea anthologies is the former’s humanism and care for characters, even those that end up losing. We won’t spoil anything here, but there are plenty of losers in The Premise—people who come up on the short end of the stick, and others who take L’s and pursue furious measures for retribution. There’s also no shortage of characters choosing to power through their neuroses in the service of lofty, if misguided, goals.
The Premise’s first two episodes offer differing manifestations of justice using social media as a tool. And while they are probably the most preachy and serious of the five-episode run, they produce harrowing looks into a topic that Novak has clearly thought a lot about: wielding whiteness on the internet for the purpose of PR and political causes. There are tropes here, sure—like the plucky law intern who takes on her first big case, or the annoying internet troll who helps an influencer realize how shitty their lives are—but they are handled with empathy, and a level of faith in people’s power to exercise agency within the downward spiral of their virtual and three-dimensional lives.
There is also darkness here. A number of Novak’s characters hit rock bottom with the only true narcotic: social capital. Novak’s pen pushes beyond the humor of his early work to peer into the abyss of ruinous grief and powerful narcissism, betraying a particular fascination with our need for external validation, and the lengths we’re willing to go to secure it. These are characters who have all been conditioned to seek praise, gratitude, and recognition, and they chase it at a risk to their own safety and self-interest.
The Premise champions personal causes and makes a mission of character interrogation. And though it careens into hamfisted “this is a message” territory at some points, when it’s humming, B.J. Novak’s debut showrunning endeavor can be touching and downright diabolical.