Amy Schumer’s brand of comedy, particularly when it comes to the not-so-subtleties of sexism, is sharp and blunt at the same time. She finds stinging humor in our culture’s absurd standards of female beauty, the realities of the body that contradict those standards, and the ways men fail to see beyond them.
Her shtick, perfect material for stand-up and “Inside Amy Schumer” sketches, doesn’t obviously lend itself to long-form, non-sitcom storytelling. One of the revelations of the movie “Trainwreck” was that she so naturally expanded into a dimensional and sympathetic rom-com character while still working some of the same cultural turf. It was akin to Ray Romano’s expansion in the years after “Everybody Loves Raymond,” as he so impressively stepped outside the punchline factory.
In her new Hulu series “Life & Beth” Schumer grows even further as an actress, becoming a full and dramatically viable character while still finding a place for her comedic themes. She delivers her most faceted and raw performance yet as Beth Jones, a woman hitting 40 who realizes she’s not thrilled with any of her life choices — her job as a wine saleswoman, her handsome but shallow boyfriend (a lovable Kevin Kane), her New York apartment. After an unexpected death in the family (thus the pun in the title “Life & Beth”), she begins to break out of her misery, but only by revisiting her turbulent past (which we see in flashbacks starring an excellent Violet Young as the young Beth). Beth is holding on to unresolved problems from her childhood, living out the notion that if you don’t deal with your issues, they will certainly come and deal with you.
I’m tempted to fit “Life & Beth” into the same category as “One Mississippi,” “Somebody Somewhere,” and “Feel Good,” as it gives us the semi-autobiographical story of a grown woman coming of age, striving to be authentic. Written by Schumer, the series is a form of portraiture built on small epiphanies and psychological knots, without elaborate plotting or genre formatting.
But, while it’s related to those mid-life turning-point shows, “Life & Beth” is at times more overtly comic and satirical — which is clear in the opening scene, as Beth tries to sell wine to a pair of impossible restaurant owners. I was moved by Beth’s struggle to get closer to her true desires, to understand that the behaviors that protected her as a kid are now harmful and self-negating. I felt her fury when she finds her ex falling apart rather than moving on. But I laughed out loud, too, sometimes thanks to the characters around Beth — Hank Azaria’s funeral director, for example, who’s obsessed with dieting, and Jonathan Groff’s one night-stand, who is fixated on Manhattan. As a nervous MRI attendant, Phil Wang is a hoot. The shifts between the sketch-comedy-like gags and the drama are sometimes awkward, but less and less so after the first few episodes (there are 10 in all).
One of the best parts of “Life & Beth” is John, a farmhand at a vineyard where Beth has done some business. Played by Michael Cera, who is the ace of man-children, John is an oddball who talks too loudly — when he talks, which is intermittently — and who can only say exactly what’s on his mind, no matter how inappropriate. With his dirty clothes and straggly beard, he represents the opposite of the urban hipness that Beth has been steeped in for too long, and she is drawn to him. Their mutual attraction is endearing and mysterious, and it adds sweetness to the show — although, as Beth searches for peace, John is no panacea.
Laura Benanti and Michael Rapaport are just right as Beth’s messed-up parents, and Susannah Flood shines as Beth’s alienated younger sister, Ann, who is also clinging to her past. As Beth and Ann reestablish their early bond, they bring another source of warmth to the later episodes.
The ambitious “Life & Beth” has flaws, not just with its early tonal zig-zags but also with length. Like too many shows these days, it could easily have been two episodes shorter, and thus tighter. But it’s nonetheless an impressive and enjoyable series that’s about the perils of letting fear guide us, the need to heal, and the choice to enjoy life in the face of death.
LIFE & BETH
Starring: Amy Schumer, Michael Cera, Violet Young, Kevin Kane, Michael Rapaport, Yamaneika Saunders, Susannah Flood, Laura Benanti, Gary Gulman
On: Hulu. Premieres Friday