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Marriage is Purgatory in ‘Forever’ — But Not The Way You Think

The new Amazon Prime comedy might seem first.

NBC Universal Network TV

In Forever, the new streaming Amazon Prime TV series, Fred Armisen doesn’t do his most famous Portlandia character, Spike the alternative dude who says everything is over. But, on the surface, the premise of Forever is that monogamy is over. Except, somehow, it’s not. Forever, a comedy/drama hybrid about monotony, separation, and death, is full of great moments, genuine wonder, and binge-demanding twists. Most importantly, it’s a show about marriage that isn’t shitty about marriage. In 2018, that feels radical in its own right.

Happy couples are an endangered species in the best films, TV, and books, to the point that audiences craving media featuring functional marriages, often turn to reality TV or kids movies. This means those of us who are married might feel like we’re getting the shaft every time we watch try to watch anything: a broken home here, a string of affairs there. Plus, in the rare cases married people are happy in pop fiction, then their marriage will be almost always be tested by some catastrophic or horrific survival scenario (a la A Quiet Place). The point is, any critic who says a piece of fiction that offers a sour take on marriage is edgy is lying. Dysfunctional is the default marital setting on television, which is why Forever feels almost jarring. It’s about dysfunctionality, but it’s also legitimately about love, too.

If you haven’t seen all 8 episodes of the series yet, or at the very least haven’t gotten through the third episode, here’s where the biggest secret about the show will get ruined for you. Forever is a show about an unhappy couple — June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen) — who are reunited after death seemingly indefinitely in a squeaky-clean purgatory. However, that description doesn’t really do the show justice, because suddenly it conjures comparisons to The Good Place or Pleasantville or an episode of The Twilight Zone. In reality, the show is more like Jean Paul Sarte’s existentialist howl No Exit, but with jokes. 

Ostensibly, the topic of the series is June and Oscar asking the two big questions: “This is it? We just keep going?” Those very words come out of June’s mouth and the answer seems to come back, “Yeah, basically.” In this series, even the couple’s attempt to mix things up comes across as pathetic. Sweet, but pathetic. Forever floats the idea that monogamy with the wrong person is purgatory. 

Even before June and Oscar both die, their relationship, though warm, is boring and routine. After they die, they do the same five things every day, and then fight about that fact a lot. Oscar screams “I like the five things we do!” On paper, a show about repetition and monotony doesn’t sound compelling, but Forever is really gripping, mostly because every episode ends on a minor cliffhanger, one which changes the trajectory of the narrative completely. In the second episode of the show, you really think June is going to get a new job and move to Hawaii, then, she chokes to death on some airplane nuts. Pretty much every episode does this kind of twist, which is impressive considering the show is about people getting bored with their lives.

But, the show is also about more than just Oscar and June. You’ve got the cranky next-door neighbor named Kase (expertly played by Catherine Keener, who is in everything right now), and Oscar’s best friend, a teenage guy named Mark (Noah Robbins) who died tragically in the ‘70s and considers himself to be both an old man and high school kid at the same time. Then there are two real estate agents named Andre (Jason Mitchell) and Sarah (Hong Chau) who get their own standalone episode — it turns out that their show is rather different (and maybe better).

And the best example of the show succeeding with that premise is a smallish one. When teenager Mark finds out a new person has joined the ghost community, Oscar assumes he’s interested in a young teenage girl. But he’s not, instead, Mark is all about a 50-something housewife named Heather (Nancy Lenehan) because he remembers her when she was the coolest girl at school in the 1970s. He still sees her as a teenager. In most ways, this is Forever’s perfect moment. The couple looks… unlikely, but the statement about how fleeting youth is couldn’t be made clearer. Mark knows Heather is cool, even though she doesn’t look cool anymore.

Forever is a profound show because it posits that being okay is okay. It feels very American but its characters don’t necessarily pursue happiness. They are simply stuck with something adjacent to happiness. And that’s fine. That’s how it goes sometimes.

Forever is streaming now on Amazon Prime