Warning: Mild spoiler alert (mild as this isn’t really a plot-driven show so major spoilers would be nearly impossible).
Amazon Prime has been entering the streaming TV competition (mainly against Netflix and Hulu) with a fury. While many of its shows are fairly standard genre fare: Jack Ryan is a familiar Cold War-type spy hero while Goliath is a legal thriller starring Billy Bob Thornton, Forever is something different: a low-key, experimental comedy/drama/fantasy.
Starring Saturday Night Live alumni Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, Forever takes a few episodes to establish its premise. The two stars play a married couple, June and Oscar, who are basically content with their lives. June, however, feels a certain amount of boredom and frustration with Oscar’s complacency -a recurring theme of the entire season.
The Afterlife as Suburban Limbo
Here’s the closest thing to a genuine spoiler: both Oscar and June die and relocated to an afterlife that’s like a less populated version of a Southern California suburb. Nothing much happens in Forever, which is unusual for American television. The two explore their relationship, interact with a few other characters in the afterlife (including one played by Catherine Keener, a fixture in many indie films since the 90s).
I appreciate the effort behind shows such as Forever, as I’m sure anyone is who is simply tired of the same old rom-coms, thrillers, and special effects-driven superhero shows and movies that dominate popular culture today. However, I can’t say I was especially captivated by Forever. As I mentioned, not much happens here and the conversations and self-reflection are only interesting up to a point. It’s kind of like a mid-life crisis played out in the Afterlife. I doubt if a show like this would get much attention, or even a chance to air if it didn’t have star power behind it. Because Armisen and Rudolph are so familiar and we associate them with cutting-edge culture, we might be more patient with the lackluster material than we might otherwise be.
There’s nothing terrible about the show and it’s certainly watchable. At the same time, it isn’t particularly funny, suspenseful, or moving. The closest thing to suspense is the viewer’s instinct to believe that something is sure to happen sooner or later. That’s why the word “existentialist” came to mind. It does rather capture the state of mind people might have in Limbo, though the afterlife here is never given that name – or any name. That’s another odd thing about the show -this is an extremely vague vision of the Afterlife.
There’s, as I mentioned, a sparsely populated suburban landscape. Then they discover another place where dead people “live” -a kind of mansion where residents party and symbolically burn all ties to the past (i.e. their actual lives). So one theme of the show is the question of whether it’s better to retain your memories or live in an eternal present. Yet nothing seems to be at stake here. There’s no suggestion of great rewards or damnation (or the possibility or reincarnating).
One whole episode abandons the main characters completely and focuses on another couple, two married people who are having an affair. This episode is well done but has no connection to anything that comes before or after. The only link is that, at the end, we see June observing them, apparently motivating her to travel with Kase (Keener) away from the burbs to the more glamorous neighborhood. There’s an intimation that the two might be attracted to each other but this possibility doesn’t play out.
In some ways, Forever is the diametrical opposite of another contemporary show about the Afterlife: The Good Place. Whereas that show is full of rules and explanations (from where much of the humor is derived), Forever is like a Twilight Zone episode where you never find out what’s really going on. You might say the vagueness of their situation makes it more creative and open to interpretation. On the other hand, you could just as easily say it’s a bit lazy, leaving viewers to wonder where the hell (pun intended?) they really are and why.
The Afterlife as a Continuation of Middle-Class Privilege?
One reaction, that I had at times, is to roll your eyes at this vision of privilege (perhaps an overused word these days) – that comfortable, upper-middle-class people with few serious problems will just keep on like that forever, living in a spacious suburban home with all their material (or perhaps immaterial) needs automatically met. Of course, many shows focus on the affluent or at least comfortable. To digress a bit, a good example is Modern Family. At the same time that it revels in its message of embracing diversity, it’s all within the rubric of comfortable, property-owning professionals. However, the metaphysical pretensions of Forever put it in another category. Any portrayal of an Afterlife, unless otherwise specified, implies that this is where everyone goes. Of course, the extreme insularity of these characters’ situation deliberately cuts off contemplation of universal concerns. Like characters in 19th century English and Russian novels, their main challenge is boredom.
Is This All There Is?
The ending of Forever (another very mild spoiler alert!) suggests that Oscar and June can expand their reality if they become a bit more adventurous. In other words, just perhaps, there could be a version of the Afterlife that’s not an endless continuation of suburban ennui. Will Forever continue for another season? As of now, it’s uncertain. According to Bustle, “probably not.” It’s hard to care too much as the first season didn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger.
It’s probably best not to read too much into Forever (advice I clearly didn’t follow). It’s probably more a metaphor for modern middle-class life, mid-life crises, and relationships than a true exploration of eschatology. It’s almost incidental that June and Oscar are dead. What the show is really asking is, how can they wake up and rediscover themselves in a society that encourages a kind of sleepwalking? Taken this way, the show is fairly interesting if not exactly mind-blowing.