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‘Forever’ Is the Best Possible Application of Streaming TV’s Freedom

On the melancholy pleasures of Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen’s top-secret Amazon show

Amazon/Ringer illustration

When a TV show gets called a “secret,” it’s usually because it’s a low-rated cult classic, or is shielded behind the paywall of some obscure streaming service. But in the case of Amazon’s Forever, even the most basic information about its plot was kept a secret before its Friday release. When I speak to costars Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph about what first drew them to the project, their visible effort to avoid specifics led to some comically vague answers.

“I’ll just say there was something spooky about it. Something scary,” Armisen says.

“It was very general, also,” Rudolph elaborates, barely.

Now that Forever is finally in the world, writers like me are free to expound on what makes the eerie, elegiac, heartfelt series so remarkable, beyond the already considerable selling point of featuring two of the most gifted comic performers currently working. Spoiler hardliners: You’ve been warned. Everyone else: Rudolph and Armisen play June and Oscar, a very different kind of married couple than the Swedish art dealers they once portrayed on Saturday Night Live. Two mild-mannered residents of Riverside, California, Oscar and June are wedded to both each other and their routine. So much so, in fact, that the routine continues even after they’re dead.

Forever is the brainchild of Master of None cocreator Alan Yang and comedy writer Matt Hubbard, who worked with Yang on Parks and Recreation in addition to stints on 30 Rock and Superstore. Rudolph and Armisen had already decided to reunite professionally after years of what Armisen calls “positive nagging,” but they turned to a series of writers to pitch them concepts for what that reunion might look like. “We said, ‘We want to sit back and have you come up with some ideas,’” Rudolph says, laughing.

Yang isn’t the first person the actors met with, but he was the first to offer a thorough follow-up. “He sort of came to, ‘I’ll send you some ideas,’” Rudolph recalls. “Which people do sometimes — say they’re going to do, but don’t always really come through. I mean, I’m not saying everyone’s a liar, but …” “No, no!” Armisen quickly clarifies. “It’s just procrastination. Or people get busy doing something else.” Yang, however, sent over a full selection of possibilities — Rudolph doesn’t remember the specifics, but “something was based on a ’90s thing where I was like, ‘Oh, you’re younger than me’” — out of which the stars quickly homed in on Forever.

Armisen describes a pitch that anticipates the show’s dreamy, melancholic feel: “How long does love go on for? What does it look like if you keep going and going and going?” Forever is not the zany, sitcom-type enterprise one might expect given the principal talents’ CVs. Nor is it the detail-rich feat of world-building that audiences have come to expect from cryptic, high-concept series like Westworld or Game of Thrones. To address abstract topics like the meaning of partnership and the logical extreme of commitment, Forever pointedly skips past more grounded ones about the workings of its hypothetical afterlife. It’s an allegory, not an ornate fantasy.

June and Oscar’s transition begins when June, chafing at the monotony of her suburban existence, pushes for the smallest of changes: going on a ski trip instead of the couple’s annual retreat to their lake house. When Oscar collides face-first with a tree, she ends up with more of a shake-up than she bargained for. And right when June starts to get back on her feet after a year of intense grief, the universe plays a cruel joke. On a first-class flight to Hawaii for her brand-new, C-suite job, June chokes on a macadamia nut. She wakes up with the husband she’d only just started to figure out an identity apart from, who informs her that life after death isn’t much different from life before it: “We just kind of … live. I know it sounds a little ironic, but it’s the only word I can think of.”

June and Oscar are now “formers”; the living are called “currents.” A community of formers has taken up residence in an abandoned subdivision, centered on a fountain that formers have to stick close to or risk fading away. That’s pretty much the only rule, not that the formers have done much with their autonomy; they mow their lawn and water their plants just like anybody else. The already acute frustration June feels with the limits of her existence reaches an entirely different plane once she realizes that existence stretches on into eternity. “Is there a God, honey?” she asks, a squeak of alarm slipping into June’s typically placid tone. “I don’t know. But there is a shuffleboard here,” Oscar replies.

It’s June whose angst — at the limited perimeters of her life, and of finding herself within them even when she’s no longer alive — drives the story, and whose perspective most aligns with the show’s. “You find her thinking, questioning her happiness more, or not being sure of herself or her life,” Rudolph says. “In a mild way, but it’s definitely — she’s the one that wants to shake things up in their marriage. As opposed to someone like Oscar, who seems more comfortable in things remaining the same, and feels comfortable not questioning things.” As treasured a performer as Rudolph has become in indie films, sitcom guest stints, and studio comedies, Rudolph’s post-SNL career so far hasn’t included a signature multiseason vehicle, in the vein of her peers Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Amy Poehler (Parks and Rec). Forever rests on the strength of Rudolph’s subtly broadcast dissatisfaction, alternating with her and Armisen’s genuine, nearly two-decade rapport.

Both Armisen and Rudolph agree their characters contain more than trace amounts of their own personalities. “I like repetition. If it was up to me, everything would be the same every day,” Armisen says, whereas Rudolph identifies as “a little more of a shit-stirrer.” “You find something positive to say about everything,” she tells Armisen. “I’ll say, like, ‘They fuckin’ washed the street today! They fuckin’ washed the street, and now my car is streaks of mud.’ And you’re like, ‘You know what? The street looks beautiful.’” Part of the reason Forever works is the way affection coexists and commingles with June’s existential anxieties; the story isn’t as simple as a woman falling out of love or a marriage falling apart. What traditional humor Forever has mostly lies in the lighthearted banter June and Oscar naturally fall into, the kind of conversations that invent things to talk about once you’ve run out of them: What’s the best way to sit? What’s the best beach food? Armisen and Rudolph have the platonic chemistry to make these scenes an attraction in themselves.

Though Yang numbers Tim Burton and Wim Wenders among Forever’s visual influences, found in its golden-hour photography and uncanny symmetry, the show’s closest living relative and inevitable yardstick is NBC’s The Good Place. Both shows are part of the slow-but-steady expansion of what comedy is allowed to be, including serialized stories with the possibility for real surprise. More conspicuously, there’s also considerable talent overlap: Good Place creator Mike Schur was Yang’s and Hubbard’s boss on Parks and Rec; the two series share several writers, including Joe Mande and Jen Statsky; Rudolph herself appeared on The Good Place’s second season as an omniscient, impartial judge named Gen.

Surface similarities aside, however, comparing the two shows mostly serves to demonstrate that there are as many ways to depict what comes after death as what comes before it. It’s useful to catalog what the shows don’t have in common. The Good Place delights in bylaws and details. Forever keeps its world as spare and metaphorical as possible, to the point where I had a running section in my notes for my many follow-ups: Does everyone become a former? Do all formers live in empty, actual houses, and if so, how is there room for them? Can Oscar and June interact with physical objects, as June’s new, time-killing pottery habit suggests? How much time has passed? The fact that Forever never even gestures at resolving these questions gradually signals that there’s not much purpose in asking them. Underneath the most eye-catching elements, this is a show about how ordinary people relate to one another — along with a letterboxed aspect ratio and movie-style opening credits, something Forever shares in common with Master of None.

The part of Forever’s third lead, June and Oscar’s new neighbor Kase (Catherine Keener), was originally conceived of as a man. June finds herself drawn to Kase’s irascibility — her interest, in stark contrast with Oscar’s complacency, in testing the limits of what’s possible by burning furniture and wandering away from the fountain’s protective bubble. Writing Kase as male “felt a little too convenient, some guy that she goes off with. It was too defined,” Armisen says. “To me, it was a richer look at a woman looking at herself and what kind of woman she wants to be,” Rudolph explains. “Women have a different relationship with other women.” With Keener, the June-Kase dynamic becomes something murkier, in keeping with Forever’s intentional blurring of reality and surreality, specific characters and generalized archetypes.

Over its eight episodes, Forever moves at a pace that’s both rapid and leisurely. The premise — June and Oscar are dead, and now they have to navigate what June euphemistically calls their “situation” together — isn’t in place until Episode 3; Episode 6 stops the larger plot in its tracks to stage a stand-alone romantic drama between It Performers Jason Mitchell and Hong Chau. But the season never drags or bloats, in the vein of so many other streaming shows. Instead, it feels like the best possible application of the internet’s freedoms: a structure that’s unorthodox and experimental enough to accommodate its leads’ unique charisma.

“There’s still a question mark — like, is it identification or is it attraction — which I love,” Rudolph says of the June-Kase relationship. “There’s an intimacy they create that makes you feel like you don’t know where she’s gonna go next.” After Forever’s ecstatic, ambiguous final scene, I feel the same way.