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B.J. Novak’s playful ‘Premise’ hinges on extremes

Series creator B.J. Novak wrote or co-wrote every episode of "The Premise."
Series creator B.J. Novak wrote or co-wrote every episode of "The Premise."Amy Sussman/Invision/AP/file

B.J. Novak’s book “One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories” from 2014 takes familiar story tropes and subverts them — humorously, cleverly, and thought-provokingly. It’s an inventive collection packed with brainy, broad short pieces and some perceptive longer ones. As a prose writer, Novak — best known for his time as a writer, actor, and executive producer on “The Office” — is consistently imaginative and playful.

His fictional sensibility is present in his new show, “The Premise,” which premieres Thursday on FX on Hulu. It’s a similarly playful anthology series that pushes his ideas about life in America to extremes that can be amusing, brutally ironic, or tragic. Each of the five half-hour episodes (all of which he wrote or co-write) spirals out of a big provocative concept — a wellness guru becomes fixated on an online troll in one, the father of the victim of a school shooting goes to work for the NRA in another. Each episode is also stocked with excellent casts, including Kaitlyn Dever, Lucas Hedges, Jon Bernthal, Lola Kirke, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Ben Platt.


How is the show? Like almost every anthology series ever, from the recent “Little America” and “Black Mirror” to the seminal “The Twilight Zone,” it is uneven. Some of the episodes are fully realized and sharp, others less so. Some episodes leave you clear on what Novak was pushing toward, others less so. One of my favorites was “Butt Plug,” in which a famous CEO played by Daniel Dae Kim meets up with the guy who bullied him mercilessly as a kid. He offers the guy, who needs money, an opportunity for a big payday if he’s willing to spend a year crafting and then pitching the titular object. As the former bully, Eric Lange is phenomenal.

But I think every viewer is going to have their favorites as well as the ones they’ll dislike. That’s the way anthologies — as well as dark humor — tend to work. I kept thinking the show might be a tad stronger if the segments were 15 minutes each, and there were two per episode. That might give it all a more sketch-like vibe, and put less weight on each one.


Daniel Dae Kim in an episode of "The Premise."
Daniel Dae Kim in an episode of "The Premise."Alyssa Moran/FX

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.