TThe premise of The Premise (Disney +) is vague enough that it requires an explanation from its creator, BJ Novak, before we begin. This intro to the camera makes it look old-fashioned – which is shocking, as it comes across as a very modern sight. The teaser Calls it “an anthology of the present”, although that only confuses the issue. It is essentially a short drama comedy series. Each episode has a low-key cast and low-key story that takes on a modern preoccupation and forms into a storyline. It sounds like an exercise in creative writing – an ambitious idea more than the successful execution of an ambitious idea. And, based on the double opening ticket, it doesn’t quite land.
The first episode, Social Justice Sex Tape – how’s that for a hot title? – combines pornography, culture cancellation, institutional racism and police brutality in one absurd legal comedy farce. Ben Platt plays Ethan, a type of “awakened brother” who lives in a gentrifying neighborhood, participates in marches, donates money to charities and vehemently tweets his support for various anti-racist causes. As he masturbates to a sex tape he made with an ex-girlfriend, he realizes that he has captured some background evidence that exonerates an innocent black man, Darren Williams, who is in prison awaiting trial.
Still the ally, Ethan brings the tape to the lawyers who defend Darren and agrees to let them show it in court, to prove that the police who arrested him are lying. If there’s a sense of realism to begin with, it’s quickly put to one side, showing the video in its entirety and graphic detail in the attorneys office and in court, sparing the blushes by blurring or cropping off parts not. essential.
Here, the episode begins to sink and hang onto the straws, trying to find the premise. A solid line of inquiry is the futility, or otherwise, of creating online slogans; Among the few moments that elicited a laugh, the state attorney took to Ethan’s story on Twitter, noting that he had called for the abolition of the police in a tweet and more enforcement of the law at one Tame Impala concert in another. But this is a cheap joke.
Other themes are brought up without thinking too much about where they will end up. Ethan’s credibility as a witness is eaten away by various accusations that his sex tape is a deep fake, that he’s a crisis actor or an ‘incel’, or maybe all of the above. The tape is about Ethan, his unique sexual style and whether or not he expected his life to be torn apart for presenting what he saw as proof. It gets more and more confusing as the stuffing piles up. Is it about canceling culture or social justice? Private life or activism? He seems shy to go too far while pushing a silly story to a chaotic conclusion.
The second episode, Moment of Silence, is of a more questionable taste. Jon Bernthal plays the grieving father of a five-year-old girl killed in a school shooting. He is pursuing public relations work for a major gun lobby, referred to here as the NGL. Again, any notion of realism is dismissed as soon as the twist and whether it was happening becomes clear. The organization is delighted to have recruited him and asks him to observe a minute of silence on the anniversary of the shooting, which will be broadcast in the country. This will, they promise, have a big impact. What could go wrong?
The episode is a slow build towards a dark resolution and is as dark and sinister as the first episode was ridiculous. Social Justice Sex Tape took an idea and had fun with it, but there’s clearly no fun to be had in it. Instead, he’s happy with a self-righteous person who told you so. It is an unpleasant sight for all kinds of reasons; it left me feeling dirty, rather than educated or provoked.
Novak is an accomplished writer and actor best known for the American version of The Office, but The Premise seems to take new ideas and flatten them. There are five episodes, with the final three examining trolling, celebrity worship, and redemption, related to the development of a butt plug. There is clearly ambition behind the first two episodes, but the later premises seem much more appealing – and like a much happier match between subject and tone.