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Maya Rudolph is Wondrous in Amazon's Sort-of Comedy, Forever

I’m not sure what to say about “Forever.” The new Prime series from creators Matt Hubbard (“30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation”) and Alan Yang (“Master of None,” “The Good Place”) cares far more about character and theme than plot, yet to earnestly address the former two is to immediately spoil the latter. Beyond the realm of the visual—and luckily, there’s plenty to say about that—you can’t discuss its influences without potentially yanking a thread from its carefully woven fabric. Its stars (and in particular, a wondrous Maya Rudolph) do fine work, but any in-depth analysis would surely give away the game. And most frustratingly, I’ve already tipped a hand by even addressing the fact that there’s much about this series that can’t be said. 

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Yet worst of all, the need to play this kind of shell game with “Forever” sets it up as one thing, when really it’s quite another. It’s not as though the can’t-address elements of this series aren’t important, and often well-handled. But in the end, all of that stuff, cool though it may be, is just the peanut butter in which Yang, Hubbard, Rudolph, and company hide the pill. This is a series about marriage, and love, and satisfaction. It’s about the lies we tell ourselves and others. It’s about knowing yourself and your partner and your own desires, and finding the guts to admit to yourself the things you know. It’s about how life is short and decisions can have consequences that last forever, but also how quickly a change can be made. It’s complicated and silly and simple and strange. It’s a comedy, sort of.

June (Rudolph) is a woman sitting alone at a bar when Oscar (Fred Armisen) approaches. But as he does, some other guy swoops in, greeted with a familiar kiss. The camera pans left, and a montage (seen, abridged, in a trailer) shows us the years that follow: courtship, proposal, fights, milestones, putting a banana in a dishwasher, the works. Then they go to a lakehouse, catch a fish, and sit down to feast. Then the lakehouse again, the fish, the meal. And again, and again, June’s resignation becoming more and more evident with each repetition. At long last—efficient, graceful minutes in the series, years in the relationship—she proposes a change. A ski trip. A cold mountainside instead of a brisk lakeside. It’s a little variation, and it changes their lives forever.

That’s an inadequate summary, for all the reasons listed above and because “Forever” is far more concerned with pulling us into June’s life, and letting us roll around in the intricacies and contradictions found therein, than it ever is in story. “Forever” shares a few writers with Michael Schur’s “The Good Place,” and both shows demonstrate a similar outsize ambition when it comes to theme, density, and complexity. Both reveal their depths as they’re savored. Both look at big ideas and concepts through the lens of people with fears and hang-ups a lot like ours. But while “The Good Place” concerns itself with matters moral, ethical, and philosophical, however, “Forever” dwells in the realm of the personal. The question is not “what do we owe to each other?,” but “how can you love someone and be frustrated, even bored by them?” It’s not “what is goodness?” It’s “what is a marriage, what do we take from it, and what do we owe in return?”

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Of course, there’s a lot more to it, and a lot comes out in Rudolph’s very stillness. She’s funny, no surprise there, but also sells entire character arcs with wordless stares or a slightly stuff shrug. The heavier things get, the simpler her work becomes. It’s a marvel, one of her best performances to date, and even when “Forever” seems to wander into its own cul-de-sac, she remains endlessly gripping. Hers isn’t the only terrific performance, either. As Kase, a woman who disrupts June and Oscar’s already disrupted life, Catherine Keener gives a performance that’s predictably wry, surprising, and excellent; as the punk-ass skateboarder who becomes an unexpected friend, Noah Robbins also does solid work. And in a surprising standalone outing, Hong Chau (“Downsizing”) and Jason Mitchell (“Mudbound”) unleash a dazzlingly restrained pas des deux that I wanted to watch again the moment that it ended.

You’ll notice that Armisen doesn’t appear in the list above. That’s not because he’s bad—he’s perhaps as good here as he’s ever been. But he’s not always able to match Rudolph’s emotional richness, and that’s in part because he’s given a great deal less to do. When Oscar’s story spikes, as it infrequently does, we sometimes see Armisen approach Rudolph’s level, but he often plays Oscar as a collection of traits that set June on edge, rather than a person whose attempts to create a wonderful life for his partner somehow end up making everything just a little bit unsatisfying. By season’s end, that imbalance is mostly corrected, but for the majority of these first eight episodes, Oscar is what he is to June, and not a fully fledged character on his own.

Some of that may be because Oscar fits in so perfectly with the world that Hubbard, Yang, and company have created. He definitely belongs, she somehow doesn’t, and so our eyes go to her. That tension is reflected in the work of series cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard, whose frames often show Oscar as both at home and invading—a particular shot of his face, appearing reflected in June’s eye, is a total stunner that also managed to simultaneously elicit both happiness and groans in this viewer. His muted light suits the work of production designer Amy Williams and costume designer Kirston Leigh Mann, who similarly show us a place that’s perfect, but not quite right.

As for the rest, you’ll have to see it first. You may love what you see, and yet it may still also frustrate, even bore you. So it is with relationships, and with TV. But regardless, you’ll have to find out on your own. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything.

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