B.J. Novak’s Anthology Series ‘The Premise’ Is a Timely Waste of Time
“The Premise” takes aim at big issues—but falls far short of insight.
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.
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 (Sept. 16), 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.
This unfortunate state of affairs is clear from the series’ premiere, “Social Justice Sex Tape,” whose title basically says it all. After a Black activist (Jermaine Fowler) is arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer—an allegation he refutes, stating that the cop injured himself by tripping and falling—a non-profit lawyer (Ayo Edebiri) comes into possession of evidence that completely exonerates the accused. That smoking gun is a homemade porno created by Ethan (Ben Platt), the sort of virtue signaling white yuppie who goes out of his way to demonstrate his woke bona fides at every opportunity. Ethan is a caricature of an ally, and his embarrassment over his bedroom behavior, full of arm-flapping gestures set to his favorite carnal tune “Back That Azz Up,” soon makes him reticent to have the tape shown in open court, no matter that doing so would help the “cause.”
From the outset, The Premise aims its satiric arrows at Ethan, so that there’s no mistaking the butt of the episode’s joke. Ethan is an ever-so-minor variation on Bradley Whitford’s “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could” character from Get Out, and worse, Novak and co-writer Josie Duffy Rice never bother challenging that stereotype in a meaningful manner. On the contrary, they mine Ethan’s hypocrisy and disingenuousness to excessive ends, especially during a protracted courtroom trial that almost immediately becomes focused on Ethan’s pro-Black Lives Matter credibility, his misogynistic treatment of women, and his all-around selfishness. There’s also a running gag about his gross, old-looking balls too, just to amplify his ridiculous humiliation.
“Social Justice Sex Tape” makes its case so swiftly and obviously that there’s no reason to endure it through to its finale, which proves to be a lame Perry Mason moment designed for the Twitter crowd. Moreover, it isn’t the least bit funny. Such is the case with every one of the five episodes of The Premise made available to press, which leadenly tackle a range of hot-button topics. Most depressing of that bunch is “Moment of Silence,” in which Jon Bernthal’s father, still grieving his daughter’s school-shooting murder, takes a PR job at the NRA, and is then selected to lead a live-streamed moment of silence for his slain daughter (and her classmates) on the anniversary of the atrocity. The catch? During a meeting with his boss, he makes clear—to us, and to anyone else paying attention—that, far from a pro-gun loon, he’s a tormented soul itching to dole out some taste-of-your-own-medicine vengeance.
It would seem almost impossible to wholly squander the charismatic Bernthal and Boyd Holbrook (as the PR whiz’s decent coworker), and yet “Moment of Silence” is a turgid screed against the retail arms industry that concludes without eliciting the gasps it seeks. At least its stars are engaging enough to keep the material watchable, though, which is similarly true of “The Ballad of Jesse Wheeler,” a cutesy We Live in a Society-style vignette about a world-famous pop star (Lucas Hedges) who returns to his high school alma mater to donate money for a library and, when that gesture is met with unenthused silence, ups the ante by promising to sleep with the class valedictorian. Lo and behold, everyone begins hitting the books, including Kaitlyn Dever’s academically disinterested senior, leading to a few half-hearted gags that hit easy targets (Justin Bieber types are self-absorbed messiah complex-addled weirdos!) but fail to significantly plumb any aspect of contemporary celebrity culture.
The best thing that can be said about “The Ballad of Jesse Wheeler” is that, as the school’s exasperated principal, George Wallace earns more laughs than anyone else involved in The Premise. Elsewhere, alas, it’s a barren landscape of timely nonsense tethered to tedious late-act reversals. In “The Commenter,” Lola Kirke’s cheery influencer life is upended when an anonymous person begins leaving criticisms on her posts, thus sending her into an insecure tailspin. Learning to devalue external validation and find contentment through one’s own inner voice proves as groan-worthy as it sounds. Meanwhile, “Butt Plug,” in which Daniel Dae Kim’s financial titan offers his childhood bully (Eric Lange) a shot at redemption via a preposterous task—designing a world-changing butt plug in one year’s time—hinges on a central question (Is Kim after revenge or mercy?) that’s as uninspired as its resolution is flat and empty.
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.