Some may remember the point in his career when Jack Nicholson stopped being a character actor and became a character named Jack Nicholson. Something similar can be said of Fred Armisen. As a featured performer on “SNL,” Armisen was very good at creating characters — some funny, some straight. Even on the highly regarded “Portlandia,” he often had funny characters, but far too often they all seemed like offshoots of Fred Armisen. Even his ex-wife, Elisabeth Moss, saw Armisen’s desire to always be “on” annoying to the point she couldn’t be his spouse anymore. As Moss said back in 2012, “One of the greatest things I heard someone say about him is, ‘He’s so great at doing impersonations. But the greatest impersonation he does is that of a normal person’….To me, that sums it up.” But Armisen’s “normal guy” isn’t really all that normal. There’s always this kind of obsessive-compulsive aspect to his character that’s just an inch below his normal person schtick — and it gets tiring. That’s certainly on display in “Forever” starring Armisen and Maya Rudolph on Amazon Prime, but it’s Rudolph who saves the series from getting mired in Armisen’s normal guy neurosis.
The two actors play Oscar and June, a couple who have been together so long that just from the opening credit sequence we can see how one half of that couple (June) grows more tired of the same old, same old year after year. Oscar and June are relatively happy, comfortably middle-class, childless, and are in a rut. Their relationship is predictable and boring. They do the same thing every year — and the monotony is really starting to grate on June. So, to change things up, they decide to take their annual vacation elsewhere. Usually, they go to a lake house where they fish — but June convinces Oscar to take a ski trip instead. Neither of them has any experience skiing so they take lessons, they have a miserable time learning how to pizza slice down a hill, they fight, and then…there’s a surprise ending. I won’t give it away because it propels the series in a direction that, well, I didn’t see coming. I thought it was going to be about a stale marriage (and it is), but where the drama plays out is as unexpected as it is interesting.
Rudolf is flat out amazing in her performance. I’ve seen her in some films, on “SNL,” and generally hamming it up on award shows, but I’ve never seen her really act. She really displays her range in “Forever” in both comedic and dramatic ways. There are moments when her character is required to be in the depths of sadness, and it is as convincing as it is heartbreaking. Of course, Rudolf can play a scene for comedic effect, but she makes June a more fully realized character than Armisen brings to Oscar. That’s not to say Armisen tanks the series because of his performance (he doesn’t), but often times when playing a scene with Rudolf it just underscores how limited he is as an actor. Far too often he resorts to “Fred Armisen: Normal Guy” mode, but fortunately, director and series co-creator Alan Yang has the good sense to know when to cut away from him and focus on more interesting characters and scenarios. Much like he did on the Aziz Ansari series “Master of None,” Yang also devoted a whole episode to two characters who aren’t part of the narrative arc — well not part of it yet. Episode 6, “Andre and Sarah” focused on a long-term love affair between two realtors. Sounds kind of uninteresting, but it was one of the more heartfelt and heartbreaking episodes of the series. Credit both Alan Yang and Colleen McGuinness’ script and Hong Chau and Jason Mitchell’s acting in this stand-alone story.
I was skeptical about this series when I first started watching it. Indeed, I turned off the first episode about halfway through because of the Fred Armisen’s “Normal Guy” routine. But I came back to it the next day and was hooked. “Forever” is a solid series with surprises, great performances from Rudolph, and interesting supporting players like Noah Robbins and Catherine Keener. It’s certainly not a perfect series, but “Forever” has enough compelling material to keep viewers hooked right to a satisfying conclusion.