None of it makes sense, and it’s hard to tell if the opacity is a deliberate ploy to keep people engaged in the puzzle or just a slapdash, paint-by-numbers effort to fill in the backdrop of Oscar and June’s marital-crisis redux. The two are solicitous with each other’s feelings and conflict averse to a fault. But June’s discontentedness is clear, while Oscar has flashes of nebbishy resentment and self-satisfaction that he can’t quite conceal. Rudolph and Armisen have a history as performers (they overlapped on Saturday Night Live, among other projects) and it shows, allowing them a kind of intimacy that somehow isn’t undercut by their stilted chemistry.
Along with Rudolph, whose charisma is undiminished by June’s muted timbre, the visual landscape of Forever is among its best assets. Oscar and June’s afterlife is set in a cookie-cutter, sun-bleached Southern California suburb that feels frozen in time since the 1950s. It’s a cross between a retirement community (there’s shuffleboard) and the nostalgic ur-Americana of The Truman Show (even more so in the final episode). June practices pottery; Oscar fails at crossword puzzles. But there are scenes that hint at the oddness of David Lynch: symbolic bodies of water, inscrutable strangers, metaphors that manifest on-screen.
The mystery of Forever is what keeps the momentum, although each episode features some kind of distinct stand-alone story. Yang has said that his and Hubbard’s initial goal was simply to write a project for Rudolph and Armisen, and that they came up with a variety of different concepts to explore the idea of marriage (preschool teachers, cult members). Which is presumably why the nature of the afterlife itself feels so thinly drawn, even though it’s the kind of premise that prompts endless audience questions about mechanics. The intrigue of the setup is often more compelling than the subject at hand: a humdrum and repetitive relationship (one that’s primed to be rocked by an alluring newcomer played by Catherine Keener).
There’s also a First World–problem kind of pall over the proceedings, despite Rudolph making June’s sense of entrapment feel vividly real. If Oscar and June are bored, it’s a privileged kind of boredom—they don’t have to work, or raise kids, or even shop for groceries. So much of what they’re experiencing seems to emulate empty nesters alone for the first time in years, with a future of mah-jongg and quiet dinners stretching out into the abyss. But the familiarity of the setup is also what helps it feel universal, particularly in the sixth episode, when two entirely new characters (Hong Chau and Jason Mitchell) weigh the decision of whether to play it safe or risk everything.
There are flashes of so many other works in Forever: A scene where Oscar and June try to scare away currents seems like an homage to Beetlejuice, while the end of the series feels directly inspired by recent episodes of Black Mirror, including “San Junipero.” Ultimately, Yang and Hubbard saturate Forever with a distinctive style and a mood that papers over some of its weaknesses, if not all of them. Beyond the surprises, it’s not quite the institutional marital autopsy of Madame Bovary or A Doll’s House, and it isn’t always quirkily diverting enough to fill in the gaps. Its ending, though—perhaps the most unexpected thing of all—makes up for a lot. For eight episodes, Forever has felt cynical about love, ungrateful even, but in its conclusion it shows a glimpse of its beating heart.