The premise of The Premise (Disney +) is vague enough to require an explanation from its creator, BJ Novak, before it begins. This introduction to the camera gives it an old-fashioned feel – which is staggering because it presents itself as a very modern show. The trailer calls it “an anthology of the present”, although that only clouds the water. It is essentially a short comedy drama series. Each episode has its own cast and story that takes up a modern issue and turns it into a plot. It feels like an exercise in creative writing – one ambitious idea more than the successful implementation of an ambitious idea. And based on the opening double calculation, it doesn’t quite land.
The first episode, Social Justice Sex Tape – what’s that for a hot title? – combines pornography, demolition culture, institutional racism and police brutality into an absurd legal comedy farce. Ben Platt plays Ethan, a “bright brother” who lives in a gentrification zone, walks, donates money to charity and tweets loudly to support various anti-racism causes. While masturbating on a sex tape he made with an ex-girlfriend, he discovers that he has been gathering evidence in the background exonerating an innocent black man, Darren Williams, who is awaiting trial in prison.
As an ally, Ethan takes the tape to the lawyers defending Darren and agrees to have it shown in court to prove the police who arrested him are lying. If it is realistic from the start, it is quickly tossed aside and shows the video in full, graphical detail in the law office and in court, without anyone being blurred or cut away by insubstantialities.
This is where the episode begins to fail and reach for straws to find the premise. A solid question is whether or not online sloganering is pointless; Among the few moments that caused a laugh was the prosecutor, who sifted through Ethan’s Twitter story, pointing out that he tweeted calling for police abolition and another for more law enforcement at a Tame Impala concert. But that’s a cheap joke.
Other issues are raised without thinking about where they will end up. Ethan’s credibility as a witness is corroded by various allegations that his sex tape is a deep fake, that he is a crisis actor or an “incel” or maybe all of the above. The tape is about Ethan, his unique sexual style, and whether he expected his life to be torn apart because he presented with what he saw as evidence. It becomes more confusing the more the farce is stacked up. Is it about the abolition of culture or about social justice? Privacy or activism? Seems shy of going too far while leading a silly story to a messy conclusion.
The second episode, Moment of Silence, is of more questionable taste. Jon Bernthal plays the grieving father of a five-year-old girl who was killed in a school shooting. He has a job as PR for a prominent gun lobby, here called NGL. Here, too, any notion of realism is discarded as soon as the what-if-turn becomes clear. The organization is enthusiastic about the coup to bring him to the staff and asks him to observe a minute’s silence on the anniversary of the shooting, which will be broadcast into the country. It will have a big impact, they promise. What could possibly go wrong?
The episode is a slow build up towards a somber breakup, and is as somber and somber as the first episode was ridiculous. Social Justice Sex Tape took an idea and had fun with it, but it’s clearly not fun with it. Instead, it is content with a complacent saying. It’s uncomfortable to look at for all sorts of reasons; I felt grubby rather than educated or provoked.
Novak is an accomplished writer and actor best known for the US version of The Office, but The Premise seems to take new ideas and smooth them out. There are five episodes, with the last three exploring trolling, celebrity worship, and redemption, combined with the development of a butt plug. There is clearly ambition behind the first two episodes, but the later premises sound much more appealing – and like a much happier match of theme and tone.