Thanks to Peele, surrealism has taken over TV
Great sitcoms tend to revolve around the premise of people being trapped in a situation. Think: The Inbetweeners, trapped in the purgatory between high school and university; Peep Show’s Mark and Jez, trapped in their grim flat in Croydon, awful relationships and unhappy un/employment; Tony Hancock hung by his own pomposity.
Living With Yourself takes the premise that bit further into the realms of fantasy. In it, Miles Elliot (Paul Rudd) is stuck with an idealised clone of himself following a botched procedure at a self-improvement ‘spa’.
It’s the kind of plot that, 25 years ago, would have been laughed out of the network boardroom at pitch stage. Back then, following the success of Seinfeld, sitcoms hit a steady rut of reality-based settings, whether Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace, Two And A Half Men or any other of the vast number of buddies-in-an-apartment shows. Before that, sitcoms had been on a wild trip. Anyone remember ALF, the furry, cat-eating alien in the sitcom of the same name? Or Harry & The Hendersons, in which Harry was a bigfoot living in suburbia?
The big difference, all these years later, is that just as genre boundaries in music have blurred and crumbled, so they have in TV too. Living With Yourself is funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny. And it’s serious, too, but not crying-your-eyes-out serious. Unlike a traditional sitcom, the characters’ actions have consequences, and their lives follow a plot arc. The aim is not, as in so many sitcoms, for its protagonists to end the episode exactly where they started.
And I’d argue that the person who’s influenced this shift more than any other is Jordan Peele, the comedian and director whose tropes are stamped all over this new, binge-worthy show.
Firstly, we have the sense of a world in which everything is normal and makes sense except for one massively wrong thing. In Get Out, it was the question of what foul play was going on beneath the surface at the affluent Armitage family home. In Us, it was the identical version of the Wilson family who turned up at their vacation home.
In Living With Yourself, the ‘spa’ where Miles gets the treatment – and the procedure itself – is the locus of strangeness, and the thing that most smacks of Peele’s eye for weirdness in the everyday world. The spa is on a strip mall – a kind of low-rent trading estate commonly seen alongside America’s highways, where you typically find bong shops, dog grooming parlours and beauty salons – and is manned by two apparently Korean men whose demeanour is anything but reassuring. Other than them, the characters in Living With Yourself are perfectly normal. Miles’s co-workers, family and wife Kate, played by Aisling Bea, react to the fantastical stuff in the way you or I would, not in the way that someone might if they were accompanied by a laugh track.
When – spoiler alert – Kate is first confronted by the two versions of her husband, her first reaction is disgust; her second is to consider where her own consent factors into this fucked up situation.
So Living With Yourself has a perfectly silly premise. It could easily be an Adam Sandler movie, given a different treatment. But as it is, it’s a surprisingly thought provoking, moving and occasionally harrowing series about life and love, ambition, ego, greed, parenthood, marriage and loss. The ‘New Miles’, as the subtitles have him, has all of Miles’s memories and feelings, but they don’t truly belong to him. Where the OG Miles has fallen into a rut in life, and fallen out of love with his wife, New Miles is experiencing the first flushes. As the reality of the situation – as insane as it may be – begins to dawn on all three, we see New Miles struggling to justify his own ungodly existence, and in one particular scene, the effect of this desolation and desperation is horribly painful to watch.
Film and TV studios, typically, don’t like to take risks. They like to make things that they think will be successful, and that will give them a good return on their investment. Jordan Peele’s runaway success – not just with the critics, but at the box office – has proven there’s a big appetite for out-there stuff, for clever plotting, and for exploring bizarre, surrealist ideas. It’s a type of storytelling that Michel Gondry explored in his work, too, hitting gold with the likes of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. They’re ideas in which a sci-fi-worthy plot device is merely a crowbar to prise human emotions from the characters.
It’s long been evident that audience tastes vary depending on the state of the world around them. It’s perhaps no wonder that in these times of confusion, we’re finding comfort in the bizarre. Ultimately, in Living With Yourself, you’re left to contemplate whether the whole thing is an allegory for mental illness and depression. The clue, I guess, is in the title. Not bad for a 27-minute episodic ‘comedy’ show.
‘Living with Yourself’ is streaming now on Netflix