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Amy Schumer’s ‘Life & Beth’: A Near Miss from Disaster

As indicated by the title, the initial season of Amy Schumer’s semi-autobiographical Hulu dramedy series commenced with a loss and concluded with a spiritual awakening. After the abrupt passing of her mother, Beth (portrayed by Schumer)—a directionless wine merchant in her late thirties entangled in a committed relationship with a clueless colleague—reassesses her ostensibly perfect urban existence. She decides to end her relationship, leaves Manhattan for her hometown of Long Island, and delves into recollections of her troubling childhood, depicted through flashbacks featuring a teenage Beth (played by Violet Young). Painful encounters with bullies and boys are juxtaposed with glimpses of her parents’ tumultuous marriage and eventual divorce, all drawn from Schumer’s own upbringing.

Throughout the initial 10 episodes of the season, Beth gradually grasps a crucial coming-of-age realization: that parents are flawed individuals with their own baggage, and despite their imperfections, it is possible to love them despite the scars they may have inflicted. Only in death does Beth find the capacity to forgive her mother for her lack of boundaries in post-divorce relationships, which led to the loss of a childhood friend. Amidst her grief, she reconnects with old friends and falls for the candid, compassionate farmer John (portrayed by Michael Cera), who assists her in rediscovering her roots by imparting agricultural knowledge.

While Schumer’s personal connection to the narrative lends the flashbacks in “Life & Beth” an authentic quality reminiscent of vivid memories, complete with genuine character portrayals and period-specific details, the series occasionally suggests a simplistic cause-and-effect relationship between childhood events and adult behavior. There exists a noticeable disparity in tone between the flashbacks and present-day sequences: the former predominantly delves into drama, while the latter oscillates between drama and exaggerated comedy. At times, these tonal shifts complement each other, while in other instances, they create a disjointed feel akin to merging two distinct shows.

The upcoming second season of “Life & Beth,” premiering on Hulu on Feb. 16, unfortunately retains these issues from the first season, albeit with a shift in focus. The new season further explores Beth and John’s relationship, as well as the extensive supporting cast, who previously played secondary roles to Beth’s internal journey. Embracing a “more is better” approach, “Life & Beth” reintroduces numerous familiar faces from the first season, such as David Byrne as Beth’s doctor, while introducing a plethora of new guest appearances, including Amy Sedaris, Jennifer Coolidge, and Jemima Kirke.

As Beth and John’s relationship swiftly evolves from dating to marriage in New Orleans to impending parenthood—a development that feels plausible given their ages and life stages—John’s blunt demeanor gives way to significant communication challenges when they discover he is on the autism spectrum. This narrative mirrors Schumer’s real-life husband, Chris Fischer, who also lives with ASD. “Life & Beth” delves into John’s backstory through flashbacks of his solitary childhood alongside a supportive yet short-lived mother and a reserved father whose criticisms left lasting impacts on his self-esteem.

Amy Schumer and Michael Cera.

The scenes featuring a younger Beth, and occasionally a younger John, possess a concise yet poignant quality, with Young effectively portraying the facade of bravery that adolescents often adopt to conceal inner turmoil. While these scenes evoke empathy and occasional heartache, they are structured and utilitarian to a fault. Despite efforts to allow these scenes to stand independently or merely hint at potential repercussions, they inevitably serve as rationales for Beth’s struggles with trust or John’s feelings of inadequacy. The strong performances elevate these segments, yet they still appear somewhat detached from the overall narrative.

Beth’s circle of friends each grapple with personal challenges, albeit receiving limited focus within the narrative. Maya (portrayed by Yamaneika Saunders), Beth’s closest friend, struggles with feelings of isolation as a Black woman in predominantly white spaces. Jess (played by Sas Goldberg) engages in a relationship with a younger man, while Jen (portrayed by Arielle Siegel) battles a painkiller addiction. While “Life & Beth” does not disregard these storylines, their secondary treatment diminishes the audience’s emotional investment. Additionally, the requirement for actors to oscillate between exaggerated and heartfelt performances depending on the scene’s demands further detracts from the narrative cohesion.

A standout element of the show involves Beth’s sister, Ann (depicted by Susannah Flood), a withdrawn, despondent agoraphobe silently struggling and resisting help, particularly from her sister. While Ann’s appearances are sporadic throughout the season, her presence leaves a lasting impact. “Life & Beth” commendably refrains from offering definitive psychological explanations for her emotional turmoil beyond what Flood’s aloof performance conveys. Similarly, Lily Fisher’s portrayal of a younger Ann in the flashbacks hints at deep-seated pain. Positioned on the periphery of Beth’s tale, Ann’s enigmatic persona adds a layer of complexity to the narrative, culminating in a poignant final moment in the season.

Amy Schumer, Sas Goldberg, and Arielle Siegel.

The crux of “Life & Beth” predominantly rests on Schumer’s charismatic performance, resonating with viewers familiar with her comedic legacy from the mid-2010s. However, the chemistry between Schumer and Cera fluctuates. While the show aims to delve into the evolving complexities and challenges of their relationship, the execution appears inconsistent. The evolution of John’s character from an idealized figure to a person with identifiable traits may have inadvertently diminished his allure. Despite generating occasional laughter and genuine drama, “Life & Beth” struggles to maintain a consistent core. Similar to Beth’s journey, the series could benefit from a recalibration.