B.J. Novak, writer and producer of hit shows like “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” is back with his own personal project: a modern anthology series called the “The Premise.”
The show is very much Novak’s creative child, with the very first episode beginning with a brief message directly to the audience from Novak himself. As an anthology, each episode focuses on a different satirical short story aimed at holding up a mirror to an aspect of our society and showing us all the ways we’re full of shit.
The first episode features a short story about performative activism, particularly during the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the public consciousness. In it, Novak nails the characterization of the modern white liberal perfectly. The story features a progressive white man named Ethan Streiber (Ben Platt, “Dear Evan Hansen”), who upon rewatching one of his sex tapes realizes the background of the tape features evidence that could acquit an innocent Black man of a crime he did not commit.
As heinous of a situation as this seems, the show takes a serious (if still tongue-in-cheek) approach to dismantling just how progressive and liberal Ethan truly is. When approached by a legal team, notably comprised of two Black women, Eve Stone (Ayo Edebiri, “Big Mouth”) and Rayna Bradshaw (Tracee Ellis Ross, “Black-ish”), Ethan attempts to backpedal, using lingo common in activist circles to back out of assisting the case. As Ethan pushes the fact that he “doesn’t think he should be centered in this narrative” — as well as blatantly misusing a Malcolm X quote — Eve and Rayna use his performative activism against him, saying that this is his chance to be a hero. In a move that had me absolutely dying of laughter, they directly use “Hamilton” lyrics to appeal to Ethan’s white savior complex, urging him by saying, “You are not throwing away your shot.”
This is just one of many instances displaying how the show cleverly draws out pop culture references to unpack the issues of the modern white liberal, particularly how they interact with racial politics. At first, it seems somewhat controversial to have B.J. Novak, a white man, remark on racial politics, but it becomes clear that Novak is speaking from a perspective he understands, rather than taking on the woke perspective he criticizes.
By the end of the first episode, the moral of the story becomes clear: Ethan is faced with the difference between wanting to merely look like a hero versus actually being one — the difference being that actually being a hero often lacks the recognition and glamour so many of us tend to crave when we do good things. It’s refreshing to experience a show that provides both relatable comedy and a lesson without assuming any sort of moral high ground itself.
Ultimately, the show starts off strong. It connects with modern culture without the cringeworthy explicit callouts other shows tend to indulge in. While some shows rely on mentioning things like TikTok or random trends thoughtlessly, the smooth yet instantly understandable way pop culture references are made in “The Premise” makes me excited for the stories to come.
Finally, there’s a show that walks the line of satire well, and this is undoubtedly the result of a talented cast and experienced writing by Novak. Its nature as an anthology of disconnected stories is perfect in how it leaves us wondering what aspect of our culture will be laughed at next. As audience members, it’s tough not to laugh along.
Daily Arts Writer Sarah Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.