“Brand New Cherry Flavor” is a mindf*ck in the best ways. Daring to tackle material that recalls David Lynch’s deconstructions of the surrealism of Hollywood in projects like “Mulholland Dr.,” it's as ambitious as anything Netflix has produced this year. Held together by an incredible performance by Rosa Salazar, it’s not a show in which everything "works," but it’s also quickly easy to forgive its missteps because it’s clearly the product of a showrunner willing to take risks, something we still don’t see nearly enough of even in what should be the more creatively robust world of streaming television. Give me a series that takes big swings and I'll forgive it for missing a few pitches. Recalling everything from “Wild Palms” to “Lost Highway,” “Brand New Cherry Flavor” will be far too strange for a lot of Netflix subscribers—this is a good thing.
Co-creator Nick Antosca (with Lenore Zion) knows a thing or two about weird TV, having delivered on of the most underrated horror programs of the 2010s in “Channel Zero.” He brings that show’s energy to some of “Brand New Cherry Flavor,” a show based on the novel of the same name by Todd Grimson that will never offer an explanation for its title. The increasingly great Salazar (“Undone,” “Alita: Battle Angel”) does the best work yet of her career as Lisa Nova, a young filmmaker who has come to Los Angeles with dreams of bringing her visions to life. Before she gets the chance, she’s beset upon by a predator named Lou Burke (Eric Lange), a power player who promises to make her dreams come true but ends up being truly evil. Lisa turns to a mysterious figure named Boro (Catherine Keener) to get revenge, and then things get really weird. Manny Jacinto, having a great month with this and “Nine Perfect Strangers” co-stars, and then the great character actor Patrick Fischler shows up later in the season to remind viewers even more of one of Lynch’s masterpieces.
“Brand New Cherry Flavor” is almost impossible to adequately describe in narrative terms. Lisa starts vomiting kittens. There are actual zombies. A character from Lisa’s past returns in a subplot clearly designed to bring to mind “Saint Joan” and Jean Seberg (and the on-set trauma) for movie fans. Keener is the source of most of the magical stuff and I’m not fully convinced by every acting decision this typically strong performer makes here, especially early in the series when she seems to be playing weird a bit too directly, but Salazar always brings the show back into focus, even when it’s narratively going off the rails. She’s a fantastically present performer, selling the surreal aspects of Lisa’s journey without overplaying them with melodrama. She seems to be actually thinking, feeling, and responding instead of winking at the audience. It’s essential to the success of the show that it has a center that holds while everything goes mad around it, and Salazar understands that.
The first half of the season focuses a bit too heavily on just the battle between Lou and Lisa, but the shows gets stronger as it spins off into stranger flights of fancy in the second half, including a visit to Boro’s past and the aforementioned former of collaborator of Lisa’s. The old joke about Los Angeles is that no one was actually born there, coming to the city of angels from small towns around the world, bringing their own baggage on the trip. “Brand New Cherry Flavor” captures this feeling of displaced trauma, people who struggle to make connections as they run from demons they left in their wake. And yet it’s not a depressing show, often coming to life in gory, fascinating flights of humor and wit.
The truth is that “Brand New Cherry Flavor” only frustrated me when I felt slight twinges of trepidation regarding its tone. Especially in the first half, it's almost like the show really wants to get as crazy as “Twin Peaks: The Return” but someone, possibly Netflix, is holding it back from living up to its surreal potential. I’m not sure if I just adjusted to the fine line the show walks between realistic scenes of dialogue from fully-realized characters and puking kittens, or if it really does get more confident in its tone management as the season goes on. Either way, the last couple episodes are thrilling in a way that makes me want to taste more of this flavor of television as soon as possible.
Whole series screened for review.