By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
The new FX on Hulu anthology series “The Premise” is problematic, but has promise, and try saying that three times fast — but if you CAN say it three times fast, make sure you capture the moment on your smartphone, because if you don’t post it, did it ever really happen?
That’s the kind of meta-techno philosophy explored in this ambitiously cutting-edge if only occasionally successful series from B.J. Novak (“The Office,” “The Mindy Project”). The stand-alone episodes mine such territory as internet trolling, the double-edged sword of wokeness, the power of the gun lobby, the long-term consequences of bullying, our celebrity-obsessed culture and millennials who seem to spend the majority of their time “living their best lives” online while their actual lives are quickly passing them by. As the tagline for “The Premise” tells us, this is “An Anthology of Now.”
Shew. That’s a bit pretentious and there’s a lot to unpack, and there are wide fluctuations in the quality and effectiveness of these message-heavy stories in the five episodes provided to critics. While some chapters are told in broad, mostly comedic strokes that result in hit-and-miss storytelling, the most effective episodes play out in more dramatic and realistic fashion.
The least effective entry, “The Ballad of Jesse Wheeler,” comes across like an out-of-touch update of “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!” A miscast Lucas Hedges is the title character, a Bieber-esque pop star who returns to his high school to announce a $1 million donation for a new library — and oh yeah, this year’s valedictorian will win an all-expenses paid trip to Hollywood to see Jesse in concert, to tour his home, and as a bonus, he’ll sleep with you.
I’m not kidding.
Kaitlyn Dever plays an indifferent student who has been absent from class for most of three years, but all of a sudden, she makes a serious run for the crown, and hey, that’s not really how someone can become valedictorian. Dever is terrific as she delivers some articulate (if overwritten) monologues about how Celebrity Worship is the new religion, but the entire premise is distasteful and dumb, and the final punchline is cheap.
Another uneven effort is the unfortunately titled “Butt Plug,” in which downtrodden fortysomething financial adviser Eli Spector (Eric Lange) comes hat-in-hand to the world-famous billionaire Daniel Jung (Daniel Dae Kim), whom he mercilessly bullied when they were kids. The billionaire comes up with an unusual proposition that will provide Eli with a chance at redemption and Daniel the opportunity to demonstrate forgiveness. There’s a mesmerizing sequence in which Eli makes the pitch of a lifetime to Daniel’s board of directors — but the payoff is underwhelming and disappointingly predictable.
The episode titled “Social Justice Sex Tape” is dark and weird and flat-out funny, with Ben Platt killing it in a self-deprecating performance as a Super Woke Bro named Ethan who replays a sex video he filmed a while back — and realizes that in the background, you can see evidence exonerating a Black man accused of assaulting a white police officer. With the defendant facing a long prison sentence and conviction likely, Ethan has to share the tape, which does not paint him in a flattering light, in order to serve the cause of justice. A scene in which Ethan explodes on the witness stand and reveals himself to be a superficial, resentful white guy who talks the talk but has never really walked the walk is completely unrealistic — but fantastically entertaining.
In “The Commenter,” Lola Kirke delivers pitch-perfect work as Allegra, a wellness instructor, life coach and Instagram influencer who has an adoring girlfriend named Beth (Soko), a circle of equally hip, liberal, trending friends and thousands of followers who fill her timeline with worshipful comments — with the exception of a persistent, anonymous commenter who trolls Allegra night and day with nasty, harsh, personal remarks. (Beth tells Allegra to get over it, that the commenter is probably some hideous, overweight loser living in mom’s basement — but then quickly apologizes for “fat-shaming” and “income-shaming” the anonymous antagonist.) In a nifty twist, Allegra doesn’t necessarily resent the commenter; in fact, she appreciates that at least one person out there is being honest with her and not showering her with empty platitudes. But now that Allegra has been given the opportunity to meet the commenter and surprise her face-to-face, what will she do?
The most powerful episode in the series is “Moment of Silence,” with Jon Bernthal giving one of the most effective performances of his career as Chase Milbrandt, a man whose 5-year-old daughter was killed in a school shooting. Chase applies for a job as a PR man for the National Gun Lobby (a thinly disguised version of the NRA), and he’s hired because who could be a more effective face and voice for the right to bear arms? The question is, what’s really behind Chase’s mission to literally go inside the headquarters of the nation’s most powerful gun lobby? We think we might know the answer, but we might not be right — and when it comes time for Chase to lead the nation in a virtual, live-streaming moment of silence on the one-year anniversary of the shootings, the climax is stunning and powerful and earned.