How Review Avoids the Most Common Pitfalls of Cringe ComedyImage courtesy of Comedy Central Comedy Features Review
The streaming wars have been good for at least one thing: many of Comedy Central’s originals are finally (legally) streamable for people who don’t have a cable subscription. That means anybody with a Paramount+ subscription can now rewatch—or discover for the first time—the genius of Review, Andy Daly’s pitch black comedy about “life reviewer” Forrest MacNeil, who systematically destroys his own life (and those of almost anybody who gets close to him) for the sake of his show. I recently binged through its three seasons again, and was struck once more by Daly’s peculiar bit of genius: Review should be one of the bleakest and most painful cringe comedies ever, but MacNeil’s cheerful obliviousness and absolute belief in his work make his constant misery almost kind of bearable.
I wouldn’t say I’m not a fan of cringe comedy, but there’s definitely a fine line that many comedies cross while trying to make the viewer uncomfortable. One reason I don’t love It’s Always Sunny as much as seemingly everybody else in the world is because it can be a little too relentlessly cruel for my tastes. Curb Your Enthusiasm strikes a better balance, but when it wants to twist the knife, it often cuts way too deep. Both shows are brilliant in their own way, and can be very hilarious, but I don’t relish watching them because of how painful they can be.
Review is ultimately bleaker than both of those shows, but never bothers me nearly as much, and that’s entirely because of Daly’s portrayal of Forrest MacNeil. Daly’s whole career has been devoted to mocking the confidence and conviction of mediocre white men, and Forrest MacNeil is his magnum opus, a devastating, uproarious depiction of a clueless man driven by hubris and misplaced priorities. MacNeil considers his “life reviews” to be a calling more important than anything else in his life, including his family and his own health, and his single-minded pursuit of that calling is a tragedy he could stop at any minute but never does.
If you haven’t seen the show, and have no idea what a “life reviewer” does, imagine a critic who “reviews” life experiences, from the everyday to the extreme. In every episode “viewers” ask MacNeil what a specific experience is like, and then he goes out to experience it as faithfully and realistically as possible. When a viewer asks him what addiction is like, he gets addicted to cocaine. When he’s asked what starting a cult is like, MacNeil creates an absurd cult based around his five-star rating system, only to get purged by his own followers for not believing in his own nonsense enough. When asked how it feels to get a divorce, MacNeil leaves his wife of 14 years, setting off one of the main stories that run throughout the show. He will do literally anything his viewers ask him, no matter the legality, and no matter the impact it could have on him or those around him. As a result, MacNeil’s story isn’t an arc but a straight line down—a gradual, slow motion plummet from the first episode on.
It should be unbearable, and it often almost is. MacNeil has an endless tolerance for suffering, though, at least when it’s done in the name of his show. His cheery facade cracks regularly, his emotional turmoil shining through, but when each review is over and he’s back under the lights of the TV studio, MacNeil rarely shows any sign of pain. That optimism could be mistaken as strength and would almost be admirable if MacNeil wasn’t also a deluded simpleton with no concern for his family and whose pain was entirely unnecessary and self-inflicted. The fact that his unwavering dedication to his foolish show somehow helps him persevere through every terrible thing he brings upon himself makes his embarrassing disasters less painful to watch, even as it makes it all so much more tragic.
Forrest MacNeil is absolutely a fool. He’s sexist, callous, unthinking, uncaring, at least a little bit racist, and utterly self-obsessed to a destructive degree. But Andy Daly is so good-natured throughout it all, so cheerily straightforward in the face of tragedy, and so blindingly devoted to his absurd task, that it makes what should be some of the hardest-to-watch cringe comedy ever made go down easily. Review is far from “feel-good” television, but it doesn’t make me feel as bad as pretty much every other cringe comedy does, and that’s entirely because of Daly’s amazing performance.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.