A well-written comedy can make you tear up from laughter just as a drama full of depth and raw performances can move you to tears. “Life & Beth” attempts both of these feats and executes neither. Quite frankly, it’s a comedy-drama that isn’t all that good of a comedy or a drama. I imagine the writer’s room confused the genre for being a “You Pick Two” deal at Panera, where if the sandwich was alright and the soup was just okay, we wouldn’t notice because we thought we were getting a steal.
“Life & Beth” follows Beth (Amy Schumer, “Trainwreck”), a wine salesperson approaching 40 whose life has recently been upended by the death of her mother. Bouncing between two timelines of present-day Beth and teenage Beth (Violet Young, “Chicago P.D.”), adult Beth attempts to reconcile with her childhood trauma and make peace with the havoc her mother Jane (Laura Benanti, “Gossip Girl”) has wreaked upon her life, even in death.
On the surface, the show has all the right ingredients for a heartfelt and funny series. Parallels between the two timelines serve as a nice visual touch to support Beth’s decades of inner turmoil and give a level of nuance to an otherwise flat performance from Schumer. Scenes with John (Michael Cera, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) feel lighter, displaying an uncharacteristically at-ease Beth. Occasional appearances by Beth’s sister Ann (Susannah Flood, “For the People”) are also a welcomed reprieve, as Beth and Ann’s conversational banter plays off a genuine dynamic and fluid dialogue that is sorely lacking elsewhere.
But the truth is that these moments do little to mask the disconnect of the show at its core. The thing about a good “dramedy” is that it should balance the two genres without losing sight of either one. And while there’s nothing wrong with leaning one way more than the other, like the goofier nature of the jokes in “Ted Lasso” or the powerfully visceral acting of Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini in “Dead to Me,” the show still needs to fully commit. “Life & Beth” fails to make a particularly compelling case for either aspect of its two-sided coin. It radiates uncertainty, and as the comedy and drama components play tug of war with each other, the audience seldom gets the chance to appreciate either fully.
To make matters worse, the use of multiple timelines — perhaps the only interesting element in the show — comes off as disjointed, creating a tonal dissonance throughout. Rather than feeling like the pieces of an intricate puzzle coming together, the flashbacks are scattered, attesting more to the messiness of Beth’s mental state than to any grand thematic device. The sporadic bursts disrupt the flow of her character arc and provide little context as to why Beth is the way she is. The substance of the flashback timeline doesn’t even truly come into play until episode nine of 10, in which we are wholly overloaded with the full extent of Beth’s emotional trauma. This scene provides more background on the tense relationship Beth shares with her mom in a commendable performance from Young and an effervescently dynamic Benanti. But delaying this integral moment hindered Beth from experiencing any level of substantial growth, and the audience from developing any sort of connection to her earlier on.
So what did happen in the eight episodes prior to Beth’s climactic breakthrough? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. The vast majority was fairly unremarkable, as I had virtually no attachment to any of the characters, save for Ann (the token quirky, quiet and queer one, of course). If this show was a spice, it would be flour. The color tones and costume design were so underwhelming and dull that, if the show was even the slightest bit self-aware, I’d call it intentional.
Now, don’t get me wrong, mediocrity can often give way to grand hilarity in the comedy realm, but “Life & Beth” never fully leans into it. Hints of its potential peek out when it isn’t quite so bogged down by the duality of its own comedic-dramatic nature, such as when Beth and her friends remark that they’re too old to be clubbing with an immediate cut-shot to them leaving to go shopping at Nordstrom Rack, or Beth dealing with the ramifications of her father’s short-term memory loss by having to tell him about her mother’s death over and over again. The problem is that these genuinely comedic or dramatic moments are too few and far between to make a resounding impact on the show as a whole. They’re isolated pieces of an otherwise dull gem; one that never lingers in the spotlight long enough to truly shine.
In one scene, Beth visits a vineyard manager who says a publication called his wine “drinkable,” just as she sips and promptly struggles to swallow it. Well, the nicest way I can put it is that “Life & Beth” is “watchable,” but that doesn’t mean you’re going to like the way it goes down.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.