Marriage Takes a Drastic Turn in Forever

Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen play a couple pondering their relationship in the tragicomic Amazon series.

Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph in Amazon's 'Forever'
Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph in Forever (Amazon Prime Video)

This article contains spoilers through all eight episodes of Forever.

The opening sequence of Forever, the new eight-part Amazon series from the creators Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard, is one of the more flawless introductions to a series in recent memory. It plays out to Miles Davis’s recording of Rodgers and Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind,” a honeyed, wistful ode to melancholia, as Oscar (Fred Armisen) spots June (Maya Rudolph) from across a bar. He introduces himself, and then the camera proceeds to sweep chronologically through the timeline of their romance, from left to right. The story tracks through the early highlights (a bowling date, a proposal, a fight), and then the smaller moments of intimacy: teeth brushing, dishwasher loading, staring silently at phones on the sofa.

They holiday every year at a cabin by a lake, and soon the montage becomes the same scene over and over: Oscar presents June with a trout he’s caught and cooked himself. His posture every time is identical to the last, simultaneously theatrical and modest, confident in his own capabilities. But June’s expression shifts minutely through the five or six times the interlude repeats, from delight to something like ennui. Oscar seems as content in their routine as ever; June doesn’t.

Before Forever was released last Friday, critics were compelled not to spoil any information about the series, which consistently relies (perhaps overly so) on the element of surprise. Those surprises, though—at least the ones that come at the end of the first two episodes—are the core of the show’s forlorn but whimsical soul. (Significant spoilers ahead.) In the first episode, June persuades Oscar to mix up their routine by taking a ski trip. It works: While she’s getting chatted up by a burly doofus in a bar at the bottom of the slopes, Oscar skis into a tree and dies.

I was prepared at this point for Forever to become something completely distinct by boldly killing off one of its major stars in Act I, and for Rudolph to anchor a tragicomic series about grief (which, to be fair, would likely be an excellent TV show). June binges desolately on corn chips and individual wine cups; she breaks down while buying a new router (a salesperson tells June it’s the end of her shift, but she’ll happily ask the assistant manager to come grieve with her). Against all odds, she’s promoted to a sales job in Hawaii. And then … she chokes on a business-class macadamia nut and wakes up next to Oscar. They’ve been reunited, only this time it’s forever forever.

The idea of an afterlife being less than peachy has been mined recently by Michael Schur’s NBC comedy The Good Place (Yang wrote for Schur’s earlier show, Parks and Recreation, which starred Yang’s Master of None co-creator, Aziz Ansari). Forever has the same initial confusion but a strikingly different tone. June can’t hide that she isn’t immediately thrilled to see Oscar (“Am I not … going to Hawaii?” she blurts out), and as he escorts her around the mid-century-modern suburb that’s neither paradise nor purgatory, the show’s allegorical nature emerges. Forever is about wrestling with a midlife crisis. Is stifling companionship better than stark loneliness? Is safe routine preferable to risky uncertainty? Is marriage heaven? Or hell?

One of the things that makes The Good Place so brilliant is its specificity. When Eleanor (Kristen Bell) first arrives in the afterlife, she’s greeted comfortingly by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the place where, he assures her, a small number of good people get to go. There are rules and explanations, assigned housing, and friendly, Siri-like guides who answer any questions the newly deceased might have. Forever’s afterlife is different. There are no welcome packets, Oscar tells June, a little sadly. Dead people are now “formers,” who can see the living (“currents”) but not interact with them. Food inexplicably appears in each former’s home, whether they want it to or not. And if Oscar and June stray too far from a particular fountain, they’ll feel drained of energy, to the point where they could disappear, although how or why is unclear.

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.