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08/26/2015 05:46 pm ET

The Most Dangerous Antihero On TV Is ... The Star Of Comedy Central's 'Review'?

"I love to try to bring that into Forrest MacNeil -- the feeling that we're not safe."
Comedy Central

Occasionally Forrest MacNeil, the protagonist of “Review,” realizes just how badly his life is going. At the end of the most recent installment of the Comedy Central show, which depicted extensive plastic surgery as well as a cult indoctrination gone very, very wrong, he thinks he’s identified the culprit.

“It was, by far, the most terrible experience this show has subjected me to,” he narrated over footage of the horrifying wreckage his bad decisions had led to.

As he has in the past, Forrest blamed the show he’s appearing on, which forces him to evaluate various life experiences and give them one- to five-star ratings, for the bewildering and bad choices he's made. 

But wait -- is Forrest actually forced to do any of these things? Did he really have to break up his marriage, become a suspect in an arson and blackmail a girlfriend? Well, no. But his misguided commitment to the premise of the show makes him think the answer is yes. Any rational person would have opted out of the whole scenario long ago, but Forrest has an almost unshakeable devotion to “Review,” not to mention a frightening vulnerability to the manipulations and the ice-cold glares of his shady producer, Grant (the typically great James Urbaniak).

The tension between Forrest’s enthusiastic, open-hearted embrace of possibilities of each scenario and his inability to put any limits on what he’ll do for his job supplies “Review” with a great deal of its painfully hilarious comedy. With the best of intentions -- or at least a great deal of energy -- Forrest wades into every situation thinking it’ll turn out better than the last one, but since the show debuted last year, things have only gotten worse for the “Review” star. Creator Andy Daly, who plays Forrest, has imbued the show with a great deal of deftly handled pathos as he has piled indignities and misadventures on the hapless host; Forrest’s story has only gotten more serialized, tragic and delightfully bizarre as time has gone on.

Forrest’s story has only gotten more serialized, tragic and delightfully bizarre as time has gone on.

As Daly notes in our interview, the goal of “Review” was always to construct an ongoing narrative about Forrest’s life. Even if the genial host can’t consistently accept that his voluntary participation in the show has brought about the terrible events that continue to play out in his life and in the lives of those around him, the audience can clearly see that he has the freedom to walk away, if only he’d take it. After all, this season Forrest is able to veto the review choices that his viewers make for him -- but he keeps choosing to take their often dangerous suggestions anyway. It's easier to blame his circumstances for his bad choices, rather than himself, and the audience can’t quite sit in judgment of the character, because we’ve all hidden behind that excuse at one time or another. 

As I wrote last year of “Review,” Forrest is not the first man “whose delusional obsessions destroyed his family and everything else he touched. Walter White has left us, but his brand of khaki-clad, suburban-dad mania lives on in… ‘Review,’ which mines Heisenbergian commitment for maximum comedic value.” As critic Sean Collins noted recently, Forrest’s relentless quest to avoid his own culpability serves as sly yet pointed commentary on the antihero vogue in TV.

I asked Daly, who’s also appeared on “Modern Family,” “Adventure Time” and “Silicon Valley,” among other shows, about the origins of Forrest’s story, the character’s unique brand of optimistic idiocy and what’s different about the acclaimed show in Season 2. 

(By the way, in an homage to one of the episodes that put “Review” on the map, as we talked, we ate pancakes. Turns out the secret to a truly enjoyable pancake experience is this: Just add ricotta cheese and blueberries to the batter -- and don’t eat 15 of them in one sitting.)

So the show is an adaptation. How did it come to you?

It came to me without explanation on my doorstep in an envelope from my agent, who had seen it, and my name had been thrown around in relation to it. I don't remember how many episodes I had been given, but not more than three, I think. I was watching it, and in [the original’s] second episode, their main character, Miles Barlow, has to review divorcing his wife. They have that custody-hearing scene that we did in our "Batman" [episode]. He has things thrown at him that he's done previously -- in the context of this custody hearing, the opposing lawyer said, "He's trained with Al Qaeda, he's hunted whales in protected waters." Even though you didn't see those things, you understand these were things he did in the context of being a life reviewer.

That was a lightbulb moment to me -- "Oh, that's what the show is." If it were just segments where we reset at the end of each one, it wouldn't be all that interesting. But to say, "He has a pre-existing life and these experiences are coming into his pre-existing life and affecting them for real and forever" -- that is fascinating to me. I wanted to see that happen.

I love the idea of a stealth show, where it seems to be about one thing, but it's really doing a different thing. So it's not just a guy reviewing life, obviously, it's about a guy who commits to an idea to a ridiculous degree. That's kind of a central idea in comedy or even in being an actor -- if you're not going to commit to the premise or the character, then you might as well not do it.

Yeah. In interviews, people have been asking me, “Who are your comic influences?” and for a long time, I've shied away from citing Andy Kaufman, because it's such a cliche. Comedians always say they were inspired by Andy Kaufman. But I really was. I read about him in the backstage history of "Saturday Night Live" when I was 15 years old, I sought out everything he was ever in, "My Breakfast with Blassie," his Carnegie Hall concert.

What I took away more than anything was, I don't think I could ever have the courage to be, under my own name, that confrontational and upsetting. But the commitment, the 100 percent commitment to his ideas -- there's no sense that there is a comic actor behind there, peeking out and saying, "It's really just me, guys! We're safe here." We're not safe, you know what I mean? You're not safe, because he was so thoroughly committed to what he was doing that anything could happen. I love that and I love to try to bring that into Forrest MacNeil -- the feeling that we're not safe. Andy Daly is hopefully not peeking out and saying, "I'm just a comic actor and we're just doing a funny show and this is all jokes." I aspire to have people feel like, "I'm watching a guy who is so overly committed to what he's doing that anything can happen."

You've been involved in comedy for a long time, and just referring to the kind of discomfort and awkwardness Andy Kaufman would produce -- you'd see that occasionally on "SNL" and here and there back then, but it's a much more prominent comedy style now.

Yeah. I might be wrong, but I chalk it up to -- everybody in comedy is trying to surprise their audience. I think Doug Benson has said funny is just really a synonym for surprising. Every joke, there's a misdirect and there's a surprise. The desire to find more and more ways to surprise has led to this idea of playing around with dramatic moments -- “I don't know if this will have a happy ending or not.” This show has shown me that it can have a sad ending, actually. It keeps you off-balance and it keeps you more prone to being surprised. 

One of the great things about Forrest is that he is surprised also. That's where the drama comes from. 

Yeah, he's no Sherlock Holmes. Forrest, to his credit as, let's say, an amateur social scientist, goes into every experience without preconceived notions of what he's going to discover. He has an open mind and he’s following this thing wherever it takes him, no matter what, however challenging and confronting it may be. So yeah, he is constantly being surprised himself.

And if you're a comic performer, or any performer, isn't that the goal -- to not be shut down, to be open? If the characters and performers are discovering new things, it just seems like it creates a different energy. 

Absolutely. That's why we're constantly improvising. The whole experience of [working] it out in the room with the writers, all the way to the set and improvising with the actors and coming up with new ideas on the fly, it feels like that's staying open and following this comic idea wherever it goes, and maybe it'll work, maybe it won't. Jeff Blitz, who directs all our episodes, is so great about that, about creating a safe environment to explore a new, funny idea. If it doesn't work, we won't use it, but there's no reason not to try it.

Forrest is so open to where things take him, but he goes so horribly awry when it comes to having any kind of useful perception. Where do you think that comes from? 

I think his main problem is, he's bought into this inflated view of himself as someone who is uniquely qualified to perform this crucially important public service.

The crucially important job of reviewing things? Do go on!

[Laughs] No, but specifically of reviewing life experiences. It's such a stupid idea. It's a really dumb idea. "I don't want to have road rage myself, but I want you have it and then extrapolate from your experience of it some universal wisdom for me, so that I might understand what it would be like if I did it." That's an idiotic idea for a television show and if you were going to choose anybody to do it, Forrest would be the last person, because of his various blindnesses and ignorances. But he doesn't see it that way, and that's his fatal flaw -- both that he thinks the show is incredibly important and that he is somehow qualified to do it. That leads him to ruin again and again.

That serious miscalculation -- but isn't that something we all do? We convince ourselves that something's true. "I have to get that job." "I absolutely have to buy a house by this age." We set up these goals and turn them into truths, but really, do we have to do these things? We fixate to the point that we lose sight of the point that things are just ideas, they aren't absolute rules. 

Right. As a TV nerd, I'll bring it back to a great episode of "Taxi," where Bobby Wheeler says, "If I didn't make it as an actor by 30, I have to leave town, I have to pack up and go." He struggles with it throughout the episode, until someone -- probably Alex -- says to him, "Well, you made the rule, why don't you extend it by five years?" And his mind is blown. "Oh, I made the rule, I can change the rule!" But Forrest isn't there. Forrest agreed to do this show in the way that it is done, and he has not lost faith in the importance of that idea or in his show.

Maybe Forrest's biggest fault is his gullibility. He's so easily manipulated by Grant, the producer, who is Jedi mind-tricking him all the time: "This is a real, important thing you definitely have to do." 

I always felt like their dynamic is that when setting out on the project, Forrest said to him, "Do not let me back down. Things are going to be difficult -- don't let me waver." It's almost like that "Young Frankenstein" scene -- "No matter what I say, don't open this door.” 

There’s that great moment in the Season 1 finale, where Grant is walking toward the camera, away from Forrest, and he has this devilish grin on his face, like, “We’re going to get great footage.” 

Oh, definitely. That is a Jeff Blitz directorial flourish, I believe. I think almost every scene that Grant is in, he looks right down the barrel of the lens, almost as though he's communicating to the editors or the cameraman or something like that -- "This is good stuff." It is a very evil glare.

To go back to Season 1, it took a little while to have viewers realize that there wasn’t going to be a reset button every week. Did you worry that viewers had to spend a few episodes with “Review” to get what it was actually doing? 

For sure, yeah. I thought Episode 1 by itself might make it clear to people that we don't hit the reset button after each review. For instance, he steals the dog and then we see the dog [later in the episode]. He acquires a cocaine addiction in the Addiction segment and he still has it in the Prom segment. But those are sort of fine points, and though there are callbacks, it's not until you get to Episodes 3 and 4 that you see that these things are for real and are sticking around. They're cumulative and they're having an effect on him. He's not just breezing through these things like a cartoon character.

And, as viewers, we’re so trained by television to expect the reset button, and then also, there is a lot of sketch comedy, on Comedy Central and elsewhere, in which premises and characters don’t continue. So what you were doing took a little time to figure out.

Yeah. I don't think it was possible in Season 1, or we didn't find a way, to promote the show in a way that allowed people to understand that it was a continuing story line -- a season-long arc. We did send four episodes to reviewers hoping they would pick up on it and communicate it, and some of them did. But yeah, a lot of people didn't pick up on it until a few weeks in, which meant that they had to sign on to a show that was "Nerdy guy does extreme things in self-contained pieces," and hang around for the change. 

But people did find the show, and the buzz definitely grew over the course of the season. What was your perception of people's engagement with
“Review” during the course of that season?
 

I never stopped being worried. My wife will tell you every week, the night before an episode aired, I would say, "This is the one where we're going to lose people. People are not going to put up with this." I really thought people were going to be mad when we killed Fred Willard. I was worried a lot.

That was my favorite segment. 

[laughs] It was very gratifying over the course of the season, to first have that critical response, where the critics got it, then to see, over the course of the season, to see people throwing catchphrases back and forth on Twitter and talking about recommending it to one another on social media.

I do have to say, and I don't know if this is something Comedy Central would like me to say, but when [Season 1] moved to Amazon Prime, I felt like I started to hear more about it than I had during the run on Comedy Central, which I think may be because of the binge-watch thing. It's easier for someone to recommend something if it's all in one place. But it can also be satisfying to watch a show week to week, as I do with "Game of Thrones." What I'm saying is that "Review" is a "Game of Thrones" clone.

Jesse Grant via Getty Images

Obviously. So in thinking about Forrest, I've been thinking about the legal concept of the "reasonable person." You know, what would a reasonable person be expected to do in a particular situation? In a way, the concept of "Review" is, here's a Reasonable Man -- but you're intentionally subverting that idea so people have to confront the possibility that there is no Reasonable Person. Everyone can be a nightmare or a hero or incredibly destructive, based on the right circumstances.

One thing we sometimes try to do is have it be a “frog in a boiling pot of water” situation for Forrest. He doesn't start out his exploration of something in a crazy place, but certain stances plus his own bad decisions get him to someplace catastrophic. We do make an effort to make it so that when things go wrong for Forrest, it's his own stupid fault. But sometimes circumstance nudges him along.

There can be something irresistible about following a bad path in certain situations -- "Well, if I've gone this far, I might as well go a little further ... "  

Sure. In our first episode of the season, he has to review what it's like to blackmail someone, so he's extracting $500 a week from poor Alison Tolman, and then she won't pay anymore. It's like, well, it's terrible, but he has to make good on the threat, right?

If he doesn’t, in a way, he's a dishonorable person. 

Yeah. It's part of the blackmail experience that he signed on for. And he never saw it coming. He never in a million years realized he'd have to make good on the threat. But she wouldn't pay, so he has to.

At first glance, Forrest is the kind of character that you’d expect to be the straight man. 

What's weird is that he's a square, but he's not the straight man in this world. His ex-wife is the straight man, to some extent. [His assistant] Lucille, [co-host] A.J. -- they're more sensible than him. Even though he's not wacky, he is really not the audience's voice. He is the incongruous element. 

Just how much does A.J. [Megan Stevenson] hate him?

A.J. can't stand him. She just thinks he's such a corny idiot. 

I think she's just waiting for him to die in one of these stunts so she can take over. 

Tragically, that seems to be the attitude of a lot of people on the show. [laughs] Nobody is trying to save him from himself. We did have in an early draft [of the second season premiere] -- some examination of the fact that A.J. had expected to take over Season 2. But it felt like we already spend so much time in the studio getting up to speed on Forrest's state of mind before we get to [the review segments], that we just wanted to barrel into that first one. In fact, we got very few notes from the network this season, but one of them was, "How quick can you get to the excitement or the action of this piece?"

One difference in Season 2 is that Forrest has a veto. How often can he use it? 

Only twice over the course of the season. You get the feeling it might have come out of [an off-screen] conversation with Grant. Something like, "Look, I didn't expect people were going to ask me to do such dangerous and challenging and wrong things, and I really don't want my life to unravel again. Is there some way to safeguard against that?" And Grant said, "Why don't we give you two vetoes?" Or maybe he said one and they negotiated their way up to two. But actually, I don't think he wants to deploy these vetoes. It feels wrong to him; it feels like cheating.

Season 1 got pretty serialized and now that you’ve got the setup out of the way, is “Review” even more serialized in Season 2? 

Well, we always aspire to have it be that someone could drop in on Episode 4 without having seen Episodes 1, 2 and 3. Or they could even watch a given segment from Episode 4 all by itself without having watched anything else of the show, and appreciate and understand it. Forrest, for the benefit of his audience, catches you up to speed on things and puts things in context. But yeah, it's very serialized and maybe it's more serialized only because we knew, going into writing this season, that a really important feature of the show is a narrative-long arc.

Season 1 was the destruction of Forrest’s personal life. Is Season 2 an attempt to rebuild? 

That's how I've been thinking about it or describing it. Season 1 was about a guy who brought this ridiculous exercise into a solid, pre-existing life and had his life destroyed by it. In Season 2, it's about a man who's trying to rebuild his life or build a new life, while still doing this job, fully believing that it can be done.

Forrest is not done with Suzanne [his ex-wife, played by Jessica St. Clair]. It takes a while before we get to it, but what happens between Forrest and Suzanne in the back half of the season is very exciting, and wonderful to me. 

It strikes me that this is the kind of show that going to build over time on the layers you're creating over the course of several seasons -- so what would constitute him learning perspective or judgment? 

It is a little hard to imagine Forrest growing.

That's why I came up short when thinking about where the show would go. He’s not a guy with a lot of self-awareness. 

One of the interesting challenges of the show, to me, is that we don't really peer between the curtain of the show. What you see is Forrest's show. In other words, he is always reviewing life experiences. There wouldn't be a time in which you'd see an episode of the show in which he's not reviewing life experiences. If we're seeing it, it's because he's doing it.

What that means is, he will always be reviewing life experiences, and if he's doing that, he's making a bad decision. The show is always a dumb thing for him to do. So he can't grow so much that he would be smart enough not to do this show, or we wouldn't see it.

So there’s not a ton of room for him to change. But if you watched "The Sopranos," Tony’s journey was really a circle. And I had a similar reaction to the end of "Mad Men.” Do people change? I hope we do, while I can still recognize elements of myself from when I was 12. 

Right. Some things change and some don't. I could see Forrest becoming a little more unhinged. I can see him becoming more troubled and more wary of the world. But I think his essential stupidity to do this work, and his optimism that one of these things that could turn out well -- it's hard to imagine these things leaving his character.

The darkest timeline is Forrest becoming cynical. 

Yeah. That would be a bummer. The world is quite cruel to Forrest. The people who ask him to do these things are really not looking out for him, and neither is anybody else. But I think he's the author of all of [the misfortune], because he signed on to this thing, and he could walk away at any moment.

Maybe that's the final episode, the last frame, he finally says, "You know what, I'm done." 

But I think it's the same with "Breaking Bad." I always thought, why does he continue to do this? At the point that Tuco has been killed -- that was the moment where I thought, "OK, you're out. You've made some money, this thing has clearly demonstrated that it could get you killed and you narrowly escaped with your life. Hang it up." But ... 

But that show is also about self-delusion and the justifications people make to do the things they wanted to do anyway. 

Right.

So for this season, what did you want to do differently, without essentially changing Forrest much? 

Just from a comedy point of view, we said to ourselves that a second season should go further. It should be more insane but also from a storytelling point of view -- Forrest walked away at the end of Season 1. That was a smart decision. It's the only smart thing we've ever seen him do. And he walked that decision back. He has come back for Season 2. He is therefore deserving of more things going off the rails for him. For both of those reasons, the ante is up in Season 2 and it's fair to say we will see Forrest suffer more.

How far can you go before it's too far? Do you ever talk about what's too much? 

We talk a little bit about what's too far plausibility-wise. It's important to me that this show feels grounded in our real world. That doesn't mean there can't be certain things that would inflame a logic cop. For instance, there is no commercial space flight available, so in the real world, we could not have killed Fred Willard. So sometimes we take liberties, if it's worth it. So we talk about going too far from a plausibility point of view, but I can't recall too many conversations about going too far from a “hurting Forrest” or “sadness” point of view.

I have to say, the show depicts despair pretty well. 

It's fun to see Forrest in a quagmire and not knowing what to do.

He's doing that for us -- it's our catharsis and we don't have to experience that despair. I mean, that's kind of what “Review” does, or what TV does in general -- it allows us to see what making certain choices would be like.  

Yeah, that's something we often try to put into the show, some sense of wish fulfillment. There was a lot of that in Season 1 in particular, the idea that some people might want to know what it's like for a regular person to plan a bank robbery or whatever.

Being Irish was clearly amazing. 

Five stars, according to A.J.

Can you please rate this interview? 

Until you asked me to rate it, five stars. I've dropped down to three and a half now.

Tough but fair.

 

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