The Premise is so wildly unbalanced that watching it is to truly understand George Orwell’s concept of “doublethink,” to “hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.”
I say this because the two premiere episodes of B.J. Novak’s anthology series offers one of the most tonally dissonant attempts at comedy I’ve witnessed and one of the sharpest, most poignant pieces of contemporary social satire this side of Black Mirror. Let’s start with the former.
The episode entitled “Social Justice Sex Tape” begins with Novak appearing to introduce the series like a modern-day baby-faced Rod Serling. The episode’s premise is in the title (I’m not trying to make a pun here or be cute. I need everyone to know that). A young, up-and-coming attorney (Ayo Edebiri) learns that a local Black activist has been arrested under false charges of assaulting an officer and the only evidence that can absolve her client just happens to appear in the background of a sex tape.
As far as premises go, it’s interesting and topical. Unfortunately, while watching the episode I was reminded of how a writer (probably Chuck Klosterman) once described Kurt Cobain’s odd sense of humor: Funny, but not in a way that would make anyone actually laugh. “Social Justice Sex Tape” feels more like an example of ironic humor you’d find in a comedy textbook or something developed by an A.I. that watched hundreds of hours of network news and CollegeHumor.
In what should be a comedy sketch, Ben Platt, now famous for playing an elderly teen in Dear Evan Hansen, is the owner of the titular sex tape. He plays a character type that’s become widespread in recent years: the self-deluded white liberal blissfully unaware that they are part of the problem.
The best example of this is when Edebiri pointedly tells Platt that his neighborhood is being rapidly gentrified, to which Platt’s character obliviously says he’s working hard to fix that. With this in mind, much of the episode is spent watching Platt squirm as his sex tape is screened before a courtroom full of people. Of course, Platt’s character is very bad at sex, and the tape includes a lot of him awkwardly dancing and flexing in front of his disinterested partner.
The trial continues to expose the star witness’s worst qualities, ultimately crescendoing into a courtroom outburst that exposes him as a hypocrite, but ensures that justice is served. Again, this is like someone handing you the exact chemical equation for a turkey dinner rather than cooking a meal. On a technical level, it’s the same, but there’s a lot of humanity missing.
The Premise’s other attempts at humor fall victim to the same aforementioned shortcomings. This includes one episode that features a ditzy pop superstar returning to his high school and announcing a contest wherein the next valedictorian will win sex with him. This serves to motivate the entire student body of slackers to study for finals. I don’t think I need to explain to you how a wealthy celebrity promising sex to his largely underage teen fans raises more questions and concerns than laughs.
This is surprising since all the episodes feature a writing credit from its creator, Novak, best known from The Office. The Premise’s biggest bright spot is somehow its gloomiest.
Episode 2, titled “Moment of Silence,” features Jon Bernthal as the father of a mass shooting victim who applies for a job as a spokesperson for the National Gun Lobby. Having lost his young daughter in an act of gun violence, Bernthal is recognized as a strong advocate for the gun lobby, although his motivations are unknown. He open-carries in his new workplace, which is fully encouraged, bringing more and more ammunition each day.
Bernthal’s lonely lifestyle and his seeming obsession with weapons training raises concern from his only friend, a charming coworker played by Boyd Holbrook. Holbrook is charismatic enough in the role that you can understand how he and Bernthal manage to become fast friends. The believability of their friendship adds to the tragedy when Bernthal begs his only friend in the world not to come into the office on the anniversary of his daughter’s murder.
With Bernthal set to lead a live-streamed moment of silence from inside the National Gun Lobby offices, his coworkers suddenly expect the worst. I won’t spoil the ending, but know that it manages to capitalize on the tension built up over the preceding 29 minutes. It’s such a pressure cooker of an episode that it’s difficult to comprehend how it came from one of the same minds that brought us “Social Justice Sex Tape.”
I understand that with any anthology series you are going to have peaks and valleys. You can’t have “Time Enough at Last” without “Cavender is Coming.” You can’t have “San Junipero” without the current hellscape we all live in since the real world managed to become even more grave than Black Mirror at its worst. But The Premise is likely to leave viewers watching episode to episode with a bad case of whiplash.