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Netflix's Unstable is a Wasted Opportunity to Get to Know the Lowes

It must be hard to be Rob Lowe’s kid. No, seriously—to grow up in the shadow of a man who’s spent most of his life in the spotlight, a teen heartthrob who somehow aged into a chiseled positivist hunk without losing any of that hermetically-sealed charisma, it’s gotta take its toll on a family relationship. One outlet, of course, is to troll your famous dad on Instagram, as John Owen Lowe went viral for doing years back. Problem comes, then, when you and your famous dad decide all that ribbing is enough to hang an entire scripted sitcom around. 

That’s the origin story for “Unstable,” Netflix’s newest, tragically disposable comedy series, a show that can’t often decide whether it’s about that fragmented father-son dynamic, or the eccentricities of tech billionaires, or something in between. To its credit, there’s at least some charm to be found in the show’s eccentric cast and sly verbal wit. Unfortunately, most of that happens when the Lowes are off-screen. 

The elder Lowe plays Ellis Dragon, a hotshot tech billionaire whose company, Dragon, is the corporate leader in the kind of ambitious biotechnology that VCs love to claim will save the Earth. (Their magnum opus: Working on a type of concrete made from greenhouse gases. Save the earth and hardscape your backyard? ¿Por qué no los dos?) But when we first meet him, he’s in the midst of grief, or, well, whatever grief looks like for billionaires. He’s lost his wife in a tragic accident, which is sending him down a spiral of even more erratic behavior than the office is used to. 

Desperate to get him back on track before the board catches wise of his—say it with me—unstable nature, taciturn CFO Anna (Sian Clifford) and suck-up scientist Malcolm (Aaron Branch) reach out to the only person left who can get him back on track. That person, of course, is Ellis’ estranged son, Jackson (John Owen Lowe), a brilliant researcher who bristled at his dad’s egomania and left to become a bohemian flautist in New York City. Cue the move back home, the reluctant resuming of duties in Dragon’s R&D lab, and the struggle to patch things up with his attention hog of a pops.

In theory, the idea of a real-life father and son hashing out their issues amidst the backdrop of a breezy sitcom is a cool idea. Problem is, the tech-CEO backdrop, and Ellis’ brief as a character, makes that throughline feel frustratingly inert. Lowe’s Ellis is basically Chris Traeger from “Parks and Recreation” after a billion-dollar seed round; he’s still playing around with serenity bowls and meditating naked in his office, and that’s kinda the most interesting thing about him. Jackson, for his part, is the “normal” one, and John Owen occasionally gets to stretch outside the straight-man role set out for him. But when the father-son conflict is this one-sided—mostly, a son freaking out that everyone loves his dad too much—it doesn’t leave anywhere for these characters to go.

In its first two episodes, the central thrust of the story centers around whether Daddy Dragon and Son can reconcile and process their shared grief over their loved one’s death. But come episode three, they’ve processed, and the stakes largely extend to which of the company’s two adorkable lab techs (Rachel Marsh’s Luna and Emma Ferreira’s Ruby) Jackson will end up with, or what to do about the board-appointed therapist (a grating Fred Armisen) Ellis has fully Stockholmed into living with him after a mania-fueled kidnapping.

The longer the season goes on, the more the familial discord pales in comparison to the rest of the goings-on in Dragon’s offices and boardrooms. Shades of the short-lived cult sitcom “Better Off Ted” abound (creator Victor Fresco co-executive produces “Unstable,” along with both Lowes), both shows looking for the funny in giant tech conglomerates that may or may not have disastrous ripple effects for society at large. 

But unlike the prior series, where the innate evilness of Big Tech served as an ironic backdrop to Ted’s innately good manager, “Unstable” is far less critical of those impulses. Ellis is clearly modeled after Elon Musk, flashy tech CEOs who claim to save the world with big, splashy inventions and fawning media coverage. But in contrast to the real figure, Ellis is actually an altruistic genius, one whose idiosyncrasies come from a childlike wonder that fuels his innovations. It’s honestly bizarre to see, in a year where it’s clearer than ever that people like Ellis (and Musk) are spoiled brats with more money than business sense; Ellis actually being a good guy seems like more of a fiction than solving climate change with pavers. 

The supporting cast, and those glimmers of spirited banter between them, are what save “Unstable” from being excruciating. Clifford’s Anna is an effective foil for all the crazies around her, especially because her true crazy is such a carefully hidden secret. While he comes on too strong at first, Branch’s Malcolm finds some welcome layers in his people-pleasing nature. But major credit should go to Tom Allen and JT Parr as a pair of twin tech bro VCs who serve as recurring antagonists: think the Winklevoss twins by way of the McPoyles from "It’s Always Sunny," and you’ve got a glimmer of their dimwitted charm. 

At its best, “Unstable” feels like a throwback to the kind of quirky network sitcoms that used to thrive in the aughts—“Raising Hope,” the aforementioned “Better Off Ted.” But this feels less like a clever riff on the ditziness of out-of-touch tech CEOs than it does a warmed-over vanity project for the Loweses, one that thrives when neither of them are actually on screen. Fresco’s fast-paced gags and droll witticisms about the vapidity of Big Tech are such a balm, they dramatically outpace whatever Lowe-on-Lowe action Netflix might be selling the show with. Frankly, I’d almost watch a second season with just these characters, instead. Leave the Lowes at home. 

Whole season screened for review. Now on Netflix.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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