‘Forever,’ explained, admired, and spoiled
I am a firm believer in protecting readers from spoilers. The most common argument I hear in favor of divulging twists is that a good show shouldn’t depend on plot points, that it’s not what happens on a show or in a movie or book, it’s how it happens. But I wholeheartedly disagree; the art of storytelling leans heavily on surprise and the defiance of or compliance with expectation. I don’t want to know exactly where we’re going, so that the arrival has as much impact as possible.
But my spoiler-averse nature has been challenged to its very core by Amazon’s lovely series “Forever,” which premiered on Sept. 14.
The show stars Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen as married couple June and Oscar, living a cozy, predictable life in Southern California. And almost anything I can say beyond that is a spoiler that will rob you of the wonderful jolt I felt as the story proceeded to undergo a few tectonic shifts. Naming anything that happens to June and Oscar after the first 20 or so minutes of “Forever” will compromise the fun. It will alter your experience of the story for the worse, a bit like knowing that that sweet kid sees dead people because, well . . .
Aware of all this, “Forever” co-creators Alan Yang (“Master of None”) and Matt Hubbard (“Parks and Recreation”) urged critics not to give anything away. “We’re hoping to maintain secrecy for as long as possible,” they wrote, “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 then how do you recommend that show to readers without saying anything beyond “This story about marriage is good”? How do you describe what’s so endearing about it when you can’t get into what exactly interrupts the couple’s monotony and determines the arc of the season and the tone of the entire story? What do you do when you can’t compare said show to other shows because naming them would give things away?
How frustrated do you feel writing a review virtually about nothing? (Answer: Exceedingly.)
So now, a month after the premiere of “Forever,” I am going to spoil the hell out of this baby. I’m going to explain everything, after this SPOILER ALERT.
And this SPOILER ALERT too.
They both die. In the first episode, June tries to pry their marriage out of its rut by going on a ski trip with Oscar. At the end of the half-hour, Oscar skis into a tree and leaves this world. The show then turns into the story of a new widow, trying to reinvent herself after grief. And then, at the end of the next episode, June, too, dies, choking on a macadamia nut on a plane as she leaves California to start a new life in Hawaii.
And so June and Oscar are reunited in the afterlife, where the show is now set and where they must renegotiate their relationship. At first, you think the title “Forever” is about how a long-term marriage can feel sometimes; but then you learn that the title is literal. This couple may indeed stay together forever — if they choose. That decision-making process — together or apart — becomes the meat of the show. Safety can be boring. But then trying new things and gambling can go very wrong; June and Oscar both died on new adventures. What will these two choose when liberated from the social restraints and cultural expectations of life?
In death, June and Oscar live in a strange suburbia where they are “formers,” or dead people, who can see “currents,” those still alive. Other formers enter their lives, most notably Catherine Keener’s abrasive Case, who refuses to live a boring life now that she is unshackled by mortality and all. June is drawn to her and her passion, and it’s a treat to watch Rudolph play out June’s nebulous attraction to her new friend. Rudolph is a lovable comic, but she can also be remarkably poignant. You can see the questions cross her face: Why not be hedonistic? Why bother settling? Am I being myself, or running from myself?
“Forever” is like “The Good Place,” if not as sharp and philosophically entertaining. I didn’t even want to say that in my initial review of the show, because the comparison with the NBC comedy hints at its magical elements. In “The Good Place,” a few dead people similarly find themselves in a suburbia that is the afterlife — and then succumb to a number of radical premise changes. “Forever” isn’t just about monogamy; it’s about the people and things we cling to on Earth, and why. It’s change of location, that giant spoiler, is a critical part of its appeal, as it moves so unexpectedly from here to eternity.