Forrest MacNeil, the protagonist of Comedy Central’s Review, is that most beloved of American fictional archetypes: He’s a totally average man. Played by Andy Daly, he’s someone curiously lacking in life experience—a chipper, suburban fool who thinks his guilelessness makes him the perfect host for a documentary series where he “reviews” life experiences. Back for a second season of brilliant but cringe-inducing humor, Review understands that Forrest’s creative drive is also his undoing: His experiments almost always blow up in his face. Like so many average men, Forrest thinks his opinions are important, a seemingly harmless belief the show carries to extreme conclusions.
“Cringe humor” is a tough subgenre to nail—how do you keep audiences watching and laughing when you’re also trying to make them uncomfortable? Overseas comedy, particularly from the U.K., has always been the standard-bearer for sitcoms about unpleasant people or depressing topics that manage to find laughs amid bleakness, but the influence of Ricky Gervais’s The Office (and many others) is big enough that the subgenre has found a foothold in the U.S. Review is an adaptation of a similarly dark Australian show, but in creating the original character of Forrest, Daly has found a uniquely American way to present the same kind of humor: by bathing it in sunshine and optimism.
Forrest truly believes in what he’s doing on the show-within-a-show that is Review With Forrest MacNeil, where he takes audience submissions on particular life experiences he should sample. Over the course of the first season, he developed a cocaine addiction, attended an orgy, attempted to go into space, and worst of all, demanded a divorce from his wife (Jessica St. Clair) out of nowhere because the segment demanded it. As Review progressed, what basically seemed like a sketch show revealed itself to be a mockumentary about a man taking his life apart from the inside out—all with a smile on his face and in the name of good television.
“It's a good vehicle for binge-watching, that you can experience the collapse of Forrest's life over the first season,” Daly told me. If the first season is about the shocking collapse of Forrest’s life, the second is about his painful attempts to rebuild from scratch—all while carrying on his work. Daly understands that the material isn’t for everyone, but admits black comedy is what drew him to the Australian show in the first place. He cited The Office, a cult hit for the BBC that turned into an international phenomenon, as a “revelation” in terms of how to present a more grim comic perspective. On one hand, the show maintained realism by shying away from grander comic gestures, but it also didn’t hold back in other ways. “Because they’re willing to have such dark, sad, uncomfortable things happen ... you never know what to expect of a show like that,” Daly said. “I have no idea what they're going to do, whether or not they're going to completely destroy this person in front of my eyes.”
The British Office is a 14-episode tale of white-collar drudgery and the dim spots of happiness found within; its American remake had a slightly bouncier vibe by necessity, since it ran for 201 episodes. But even though Steve Carell’s Michael Scott was more of a lovable loser than Gervais’s David Brent, the American show didn’t lose its core focus on the bleak laughs found in work life, even if it had a cheerier outlook and a more sympathetic star.
As with Michael Scott, it’s hard not to root for Forrest, daft as he might be, and Daly says that characterization was part of a larger calculation. “We certainly never talked about likability in the early creation of the show, any of those traditional ideas, making sure we could root for the guy,” he said. “But we did talk about how we could continue to believe that Forrest would keep doing these things—that blind optimism is part of that.” It’s also crucial, he noted, that Forrest doesn’t enjoy using Review’s premise to commit monstrous acts. He approaches the bad assignments with the same faux-journalistic integrity as the good ones. “We never wanted to feel like Forrest has been going around hurting other people or hurting himself, and that this show just gives him an excuse to do it.” As a by-product of the show, he becomes somewhat of a tragic hero, a victim of his own good, if misguided, intentions.
It’s rare that a comedy’s plot details need to be kept secret, but with Review, the anticipation of what will happen next is a big part of the appeal. A seemingly benign review might quickly escalate into violence or emotional trauma; the surprise, and the suspense, is as much a part of the comedy as Forrest’s atonal reactions. “The threat of death seems to be lurking,” Daly acknowledged, particularly now that the rest of Forrest’s life has been ripped to shreds.
But the crux of the joke comes from the character himself and the never-ending joke that is his pioneering spirit. “This whole notion of somebody having life experiences and reviewing them and sharing their own insight of their own experience, in a way that could be universally helpful, is an idiotic idea,” Daly said. “But if you were going to choose someone to do it, Forrest MacNeil is maybe the last person you would choose, because of how ignorant he is.”
That’s what keeps Review consistently funny in its second year, even after it’s seemingly done every awful thing one could imagine to its protagonist. The audience is rooting for Forrest, but it also can’t help but enjoy the devastating fallout precipitated by his arrogance. “Nobody else in the world could ever have had the experiences that he has, and yet he speaks about it as if it’s a universal one,” Daly said. “He has a healthy concept of his importance in the world.” As the show, and cringe comedy in general, frequently reminds us, a healthy concept of one’s own importance is the biggest joke of all.