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B.J. Novak’s ‘The Premise’ Gives the Absurdist Treatment to Absurd Times

What exactly is the premise of B.J. Novak’s new anthology series, The Premise? The point seems to be that these “unprecedented times” (a phrase you’ve surely heard and seen on the Internet consistently since spring 2020) are tough and confusing for us all. But it depends on which episode you’re watching.

If we’re talking about the first installment, titled “Social Justice Sex Tape,” which features Ayo Edebiri and Tracee Ellis Ross as attorneys who find justice for their client in a sex tape starring a woke Millennial played by Ben Platt, you might think the series is attempting to turn the concepts of social justice and cancel culture upside down. If it’s the episode in which Soko and Lola Kirke play girlfriends living some sort of happily ever after until Kirke’s character becomes obsessed with an Instagram troll (“The Commenter”) you might think it’s a tongue-in-cheek assessment of anyone whose weekly phone screen time is much higher than could possibly be healthy. There’s also a jab at the religious fervor with which Americans consume popular culture, in an episode (“The Ballad of Jesse Wheeler”) in which Lucas Hedges plays a Bieber-like pop god with a hipster pastor leaking his misreadings of Biblical parables in the celebrity’s ear. Kaitlyn Dever then puts those platitudes onto a VR headset on Ed Asner (in what might have been the late actor’s final T.V. role).

Mostly, the series aims to understand our often nonsensical modern era while trying to dole out a sense of poetic justice. This is most strongly depicted in the second episode (“Moment of Silence”) in which Jon Bernthal plays a father whose 5-year-old daughter died in a school shooting. Instead of rallying or protesting the gun lobby, he lands a job in their communications department. Every day, in line with the open carry laws that support him, he brings more and more firearms with him to work, strapped to various parts of his body. His new friend and coworker (Boyd Holbrook) starts to give him the side eye for doing so, but it’s not until the episode’s final moments (which shall not be spoiled) when his true motives are revealed.

Basically, Novak’s five-part FX and Hulu collaboration is like The Twilight Zone meets Black Mirror meets the entirety of the very absurd last 18 months (and as the show’s description says, it is truly “creating a new tone for a new time”). So come for the skewering of woke white boy culture, and stay for the most convincing argument you’ve ever heard for a world-class, high tech butt plug (yes, seriously).

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