The last time Maya Rudolph headlined a TV show—the surreal, bittersweet, underrated Forever—its premise was kept tightly under wraps. Four years later, we can dispense with the spoiler warnings: Forever starred Rudolph and Fred Armisen as a married couple whose stale routine persists into the afterlife. In 2018, the SNL actors alone were relied on to sell the series in the absence of any indications of what Forever would be like or about.
But in 2022, the nature of Rudolph’s new project isn’t just public knowledge; the idea is so compelling it practically commands us to pay attention. Loot has the kind of concept that makes you sit up a bit straighter in your seat: Rudolph, reunited with Forever cocreators Matt Hubbard (30 Rock) and Alan Yang (Master of None), stars as Molly Novak, the longtime spouse of a tech magnate whose divorce leaves her in control of an $87 billion fortune. Lonely and bored, Molly starts meddling in the charitable foundation she didn’t even know was set up in her name, reinventing herself as a philanthropist in the vein of MacKenzie Scott, Melinda Gates, or—ironically, given Loot’s home on Apple TV+—Laurene Powell Jobs. Click!
Over 10 episodes, however, Loot fails to build on its rock-solid foundation. Much like Molly herself, the show doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the wealth of material at its disposal. But while its heroine happened upon her riches, slowly getting used to them like a frog in luxury spa water, Loot built its own sandbox from the ground up. All the more puzzling, then, when the show refuses to play in it.
Inside of Loot, there are several different series that struggle for supremacy, though none emerge as a fully realized vision. One is a sharp satire about the corrosive effects of extreme wealth, which has warped Molly’s perspective and alienated her from her new colleagues, let alone the people they’re trying to help. But Loot takes a too-soft stance on Molly’s fortune, failing to articulate its implications or even its origins. “His shirt was as ugly as his business policies,” scoffs a foundation employee after Molly’s ex-husband John (Adam Scott) gives a televised interview. What business policies, though? And what does it say about Molly that those policies made her obscenely rich? John’s apparent inspirations stand accused of everything from consorting with criminals to immiserating their workers, so there’s plenty to choose from; Loot just declines to do it.
Compare this vague approach to Made for Love, another show about a woman’s abrupt split from an oligarch. The screwy, recently-canceled sci-fi romp created an indelible villain in Byron Gogol, a man whose personal failings are closely linked to his professional success. Byron’s company makes the kind of technology that creates convenience at the expense of privacy and individual expression; he then turns that philosophy on his wife, who he imprisons in a sealed-off fortress and surveils by implanting a chip in her brain. The result works as both social commentary and an emotional arc. With its lack of specificity, Loot sacrifices both.
Loot’s reluctance may be frustrating, but it comes from an understandable place. Rudolph is the kind of entertainer who elevates “national treasure” above mere cliché; just the way she says “bubble bath” on Big Mouth is enough to earn rapturous praise. To look too hard at the staggering inequality that makes Molly’s position possible, or to paint too unflattering a portrait of the woman she’s become as a result, would place Rudolph in a harsher light than we are—or she is—used to seeing her. The actress serves as an executive producer on Loot, putting the show on common ground with projects like Space Force or Rutherford Falls: comedies less harsh on their leads than the story seems to call for, perhaps because the star also has authority behind the scenes.
Yet Loot is also an imperfect showcase for Rudolph’s many talents. Forever didn’t shy away from its protagonist’s inner conflict or self-destructive instincts, allowing the actress to work in a less familiar register than the broad comedy she’s so thoroughly mastered. Loot, by contrast, only lets Molly embarrass herself with stunts that amount to little more than light slapstick: crashing a luxury sports car, for example, or chugging a glass of noxious liquid. One scene even puts Molly on Hot Ones, a beat-for-beat echo of a sketch Rudolph performed on SNL in character as Beyoncé. The bit is a stand-in for the rest of the star vehicle: a toned-down rendition of a performance we’ve seen before.
If Loot doesn’t want to strive for Succession-esque savagery, it could settle into a less prestigious, equally exciting mode: the workplace sitcom, but set in the nonprofit industrial complex. It’s here where Loot feels most comfortable, cultivating the contrast between Molly and her executive director Sofia (Michaela Jaé Rodriguez), an uptight workaholic, or the odd-couple friendship of Molly’s assistant Nicholas (Joel Kim Booster) and her cousin turned nepotism hire Howard (Ron Funches). There’s certainly potential in doing for the mission-driven enterprise what The Office did for corporate drudgery, or Superstore (for which cocreator Hubbard served as a consulting producer) did for retail.
Once again, though, Loot leaves too much on the table. Instead of digging into what makes its context unique—the dependence on deep-pocketed donors; the low pay and long hours in the name of the cause; the question of whether you’re paid to do good or act as positive PR—Loot keeps it generic. Characters spend more time talking about their love lives and side hustles than their actual charity work. Sofia tells us Molly’s foundation focuses on local causes around Los Angeles, particularly the plight of the unhoused. At no point do we see a single character interact with an unhoused person.
At the eleventh hour, Loot gestures at self-awareness, indicating it understands Molly and people like her are inherently compromised. But these moments come off as abrupt reversals, not organic extensions of the story that precedes them. Sofia rightly tells Molly that “the money is the problem. … It makes people think they’re geniuses who can tell everyone else how to live.” Yet in an earlier episode, Sofia has dinner at Molly’s mansion. A woman who’s dedicated her life to fighting poverty, she isn’t put off in the slightest by the ostentatious displays she sees there, including a five-star meal made to order by a private chef who’s literally David Chang. She’s delighted, leaving a gaping hole where productive tension could be.
Complaints about Loot can quickly veer out of aesthetics and into politics. It’s not that every show needs a membership to the local DSA. But Loot’s premise is explicitly political; together, Sofia and Molly lobby L.A.’s city council about a potential housing project. Loot directly alludes to contentious issues like the city’s housing crisis, the crux of its ongoing mayoral election, without fully utilizing them to craft a coherent narrative. Loot tries to eschew any hint of ideology in favor of a character study, refusing to recognize the two are inherently linked.