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The New and Subdued Amy Schumer

After a quiet couple years, the raunchy comic returns to the spotlight with the Oscars’ hosting gig—and a sweet, sincere tale of self-discovery?

Hulu/Ringer illustration

For the past few years, Amy Schumer hasn’t exactly been silent, but she’s been easy to miss. Anything would feel like a comedown compared to the apex of her fame, circa 2015: a critically adored, Emmy-winning sketch show; a box office hit directed by Judd Apatow; a headlining, sold-out gig at Madison Square Garden, making Schumer the first and only female stand-up to reach that comedy milestone.

It’s only when held up against this hot streak that Schumer’s recent CV looks like a step back. The comic maintains a prolific presence on Instagram, where she regularly posts updates to more than 11 million followers. During lockdown, she produced a charmingly lo-fi Food Network show with her husband, chef Chris Fischer, called Amy Schumer Learns to Cook. Around the same time, HBO Max released Expecting Amy, a three-part docu-series that followed Schumer as she managed a difficult pregnancy while on tour. Still, a couple of streaming projects are nowhere near the scale Schumer had been working at just a short time before.

There are obvious reasons why a live performer might stick to the sidelines during the past couple years, let alone one with a new baby and a litany of health issues the family has shared with the public. (During her pregnancy, Schumer endured hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition that causes excessive vomiting and dehydration; last year, she opted to receive a hysterectomy to help treat her endometriosis.) But Schumer’s gear shift was more than circumstantial. To capitalize on the success of Inside Amy Schumer, its namesake attempted to execute the standard, if increasingly outdated, playbook for A-list comedians: traditional movie stardom. Despite a strong start with Trainwreck, the results were decidedly mixed.

Schumer’s next two star vehicles, Snatched and I Feel Pretty, were met with equally harsh reviews. The former, a vacation comedy co-led by Goldie Hawn, was criticized for its use of stereotypes about “dangerous” destinations like South America; I Feel Pretty, a bland stab at inspiration porn, managed to embody the very tropes that Inside Amy Schumer had dissected with aplomb. Schumer didn’t write or direct either project, but she was nonetheless the face of both. So she absorbed the brunt of the backlash, which became bigger than a couple of mediocre movies. Once anointed the new voice of feminist satire, Schumer faced the bitter disappointment of expectations unmet. Some of the frustration was justified; it was also a classic sign of overexposure. Schumer read the tea leaves and took some time to regroup.

That time now appears to be at its end. Later this month, Schumer will serve alongside Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes as one of three hosts of the Academy Awards. Much like the Madison Square Garden gig, MCing the Oscars—even in part—puts Schumer in her profession’s upper echelons, breathing the same rarefied air as legends like Chris Rock, a friend and mentor who directed her 2015 special Live at the Apollo. She’ll be appearing in support of Life & Beth, the new half-hour series now available to stream on Hulu. The show is more than Schumer’s return to a starring role. As a writer, director, and executive producer, it’s her most involved effort yet. Even Inside Amy Schumer bore the mark of several distinct sensibilities, including that of head writer Jessi Klein. Life & Beth may not have her name in the title, but otherwise it’s Schumer all over.

After the multiplex failed to pan out, Life & Beth represents a more recently established path for the successful comic. Louis C.K. may have tarnished his personal legacy, but the model he established with Louie in 2010 remains a viable one: a self-led sitcom in the vein of Seinfeld, but with the auteurist approach of a more ambitious era of TV. Successors like Ramy, Master of None, and Broad City turned Louie’s example into a flexible template. Each show shared some common components—a creator-star from the world of comedy, playing a character directly adjacent to their own persona—while leaving room for each one’s specific sensibility.

As Schumer’s entry into the field, Life & Beth is more than her return to the spotlight. It’s a look at how she wants to present herself to the world after a few major developments: marriage, motherhood, and the same calamities we’ve all lived through in the past half-decade. Before her semi-hiatus, Schumer wasn’t just flagging in her film work. Her stand-up, too, felt increasingly stale, with specials like The Leather Special simply reiterating the lewd, self-deprecating stage presence she’d built over the years. Life & Beth is a chance to push Schumer’s work to a new place, and one she tries in earnest to take.

The title character of Life & Beth has shades of the Schumer we recognize. A wine seller from the comic’s native Long Island, Beth is a heavy drinker with low self-esteem and other less-than-healthy habits. (One doctor recommends she “chew more and drink less.”) She’s a woman not unlike the proud mess Schumer played onstage for years, if more depressive and subdued. The commonalities extend to Schumer’s circle of collaborators, which remains intact. Schumer directs several episodes, but so does Inside Amy Schumer vet Ryan McFaul; Tami Sagher, a former producer on the sketch show, serves as co-EP. Comic Rachel Feinstein, Schumer’s longtime friend, plays Beth’s estranged childhood bestie, while singer Bridget Everett—Schumer’s onetime closing act—features on the soundtrack, covering Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou.”

Everett’s aural cameo is a fitting one. The arc of Life & Beth echoes that of Somebody Somewhere, the lovely slice-of-life comedy Everett made for HBO. Like Everett’s Sam, a loss in Beth’s family prompts her return to her childhood home, where she reconnects with old friends and navigates a complicated relationship with her sister. (Drag king Murray Hill also appears in both productions.) As the heroine grows more at ease with herself, her personality gets closer to that of her portrayer—quippier, looser, more fun. Schumer colors this stock homecoming story with details drawn from her own life. Beth’s love interest, John (Michael Cera), is a disarmingly blunt groundskeeper modeled after Schumer’s real-life spouse.

As a sweet, low-stakes tale of one woman’s self-discovery, Life & Beth is an easy watch—sometimes surprisingly so, given that it’s ostensibly a show about grief. (Beth’s inability to get in touch with her feelings or mourn in the “right” way is a recurring motif.) The show has its ups and downs; Yamaneika Saunders is a delight as Beth’s friend Kiana, while the season as a whole feels a bit long and meandering, the telltale sign of a series that would’ve been a feature-length rom-com 10 years ago. But it’s ultimately most interesting for what it says about Schumer herself, a 40-year-old mother who’s cut back a bit on the caustic wit in favor of straightforward sincerity.

“People will get sick of me, I’ll get burned at the stake, and then I’ll disappear again,” Schumer predicted to The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month for a cover story effectively announcing her return. (Nothing says “pivoting to dramedy” like a photo shoot with minimal makeup and a plain white shirt.) Before that happens, though, Schumer is seizing the opportunity to reintroduce herself on her own terms. The protagonist of Life & Beth is no train wreck—not in tone, not in temperament, not in scale. She’s just a woman trying to get her life together, which is maybe what Schumer was all along.