Television

The Creators of Forever Don’t Want You to Know What It’s Actually About

But “spoiling” this Amazon series means revealing it’s not nearly as surprising or adventurous as it thinks it is.

Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph stroll down a street a still from Forever.
Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph in Forever.
Colleen Hayes/Amazon Studios

Forever, the new series starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, is deeply spoilable. Alan Yang (Master of None) and Matt Hubbard, the creators of the eight-episode Amazon series, are treating as spoilers not just plot developments but the series’ very premise. “We’re hoping to maintain secrecy for as long as possible,” they wrote in a note to critics, “and are respectfully asking for your help in keeping reviews ‘spoiler-free.’ We really think that keeping the element of surprise intact will improve the audience’s experience immeasurably.”

But writing about Forever without spoiling isn’t merely as useless as writing about a painting you can only see the corner of (though it is). Acceding to the creators’ request not to spoil Forever also lets the series pass itself off as something it’s not: surprising. All the plot shockers, if treated with extra-careful spoiler etiquette, obscure that Forever is a familiar show, about an unhappily married couple who remain, over the course of the season, extraordinarily committed to being unhappily married. It’s like a mild-mannered reporter with a secret identity, but the secret identity is a mild-mannered marketing guy. The show sounds mysterious and alluring, until you know what it’s hiding. Some critics went ahead and spoiled in advance; I gave you three whole days since its premiere on Amazon. But now I’m not going to hide anything. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

In the first episode of Forever, we are introduced to June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen), a long-married couple whose comfortable routine has long since settled into a rut. June, increasingly unhappy, suggests that instead of going to their lake house for vacation—where they do exactly the same thing and eat exactly the same trout, year after year—they go on a ski trip. On the slopes, the pair get into a petty, representative fight—June trying to express her feelings, Oscar trying not to upset anyone.

At this point, Forever appears to be another low-key non-com about the ennui of affluent married people—and then Oscar skis into a tree and dies. An episode later, June joins him in the afterlife, and the very literal joke at the heart of Forever reveals itself: What if forever really meant forever, and you were stuck with your spouse for eternity?

But here’s what I mean about how misleading Forever’s obscured premised and all the attendant spoiler warnings are. Yes, Oscar and June are dead, but Forever still is a low-key non-com about the ennui of affluent married people. After dying, Oscar and June find themselves in Riverside, a suburban community where “formers” go about their banal routines: mowing lawns, taking walks, waving to their neighbors, playing shuffleboard. As Oscar and June settle back into their stifling everyday behavior, June once again begins to feel miserably unfulfilled, while Oscar remains content as ever, whiling away eternity doing crossword puzzles he will never solve. When the cool Case (Catherine Keener) moves in next door and immediately begins to wonder if this is all there is— death, just a lower-stakes life?—June is drawn to her. They begin to seek out more, to see if there’s something beyond Riverside, at the risk of Oscar and June’s relationship.

Sitting on Forever’s front lawn, waving in a friendly but kind of perturbed way, is The Good Place, NBC’s far superior sitcom about a bunch of dead people who wake up in a suburban paradise that slowly reveals itself to be hell. (Yang directed an episode of that show.) Riverside, on Forever, is not hell, as long as you’re content with a dull life, but it’s not quite clear what it is. How do formers end up where they end up? If you’re a tech billionaire, do you wake up at the Aspen Ideas Festival of the afterlife? If you’re a minimum wage earner, do you wake up in a cruddy building, but with a permanent lease? Is the afterlife just a capitalist caste system?

Riverside is a familiar, secular take on the afterlife, in which death, like life, has no God and no meaning. (June and Oscar don’t have children, the most common cure for the feeling of meaninglessness, if not the actuality of it.) It’s a vision of creature comforts as emptiness, which accurately captures something about the vacuity of modern, upscale American life, while ignoring the privilege inherent in it. After all, ending up in Riverside—an eternity of full refrigerators, kindly neighbors, and the time to become an expert ceramicist—might not bore everyone so quickly.

Maybe on Forever, we all get the afterlife we deserve. Maybe June and Oscar—low-key, risk-averse, unremarkable people—have popped up in the deathscape that matches their personalities. Despite Rudolph and Armisen’s tremendous comic talents, their characters aren’t even particularly funny. Indeed, there’s something false about Oscar and June’s dynamic, the love story at the very center of the show. They fill hours debating questions like, What’s the all-time best way to sit? It’s supposed to be cute, a kind of laborious in-joke, but it’s mannered, like the behavior of people in a new, fragile relationship.

After June writes Oscar a Dear John letter and leaves Riverside with Case in search of Oceanside, another community they know nothing about, Oscar follows her—not because he’s lovesick, but because he’s furious. In swanky Oceanside, the formers swill Champagne in a castle above the ocean, while experimenting with the thrills of being dead, which mostly involve doing things that can no longer kill you: walking at the bottom of the sea, standing in front of a moving truck, setting yourself on fire.

Oscar and June vow to divorce. At this point, the show seems to be setting up a happy unhappy ending: the dissolution of June and Oscar’s relationship. Death, Forever points out, is so much longer than life. All the years Oscar and June sank into their marriage could be just a blip of a blip. Besides, June already has a more compatible partner on hand: Case. Though the two women do not seem to be sexually involved, there is something between them. In any event, they certainly have more chemistry than Oscar and June.

But Forever instead pursues the unhappy happy ending: the reinscribing of the marital bond, however broken and banal. One friendly conversation about the all-time best beach food turns into an honest if shallow conversation about their flaws and the way they blamed those flaws on each other, an exchange with all the heat of a broken stovetop. At best, they seem like friends, ending their long friendship on a grace note. (A friend, the New York Times TV critic Margaret Lyons, told me her theory: that both June and Oscar are bisexual and uncomfortable with it. I’m not convinced this is all in the text of the show, but it’s such a satisfying explanation of the plot that I’m passing it on to you, in the hopes that it’s true.) But somehow, this conversation convinces June they ought to get back together. “I love you,” she tells Oscar, as if love will keep Oscar from serving her trout almandine for the rest of time. As June and Oscar grasp hands and set out on the sea floor in search of a new, shared home, their recommitment is presented hopefully, but the real takeaway seemed to me depressingly clear: Co-dependence is eternal.