It’s hard to say too much about Forever, one of the latest series on Amazon Prime, without giving away what makes it so unique, so the following contains a fair few number of spoilers. In essence, the series is a modern comedy of remarriage, although the idea of comedy, and the idea of remarriage, is so distorted by the final episode that it’s barely recognisable. For the first couple of episodes, the series seems to restart, or reset, with each new episode. It’s only by the time we’re halfway through that the narrative is settled into a consistent groove, yet by that point it has also started to dissociate and fragment, leading towards a conclusion that feels more like a new beginning. The best way to capture the shape of the series is therefore to quickly describe what happens in the first half, and the way in which this leads to the broad shape of the second half, ending with the last episode.
In some ways, the first episode, “Together Forever,” is the most conventional, introducing a married couple, June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen) who find themselves at a crossroads in their relationship. Despite all their best efforts, their marriage has turned into a routine, which they both realise, in different ways, when they visit a ski resort to try and kickstart things. In the kind of awry ending that has become typical of post-quality television, June decides to spend the afternoon with a stranger, while Oscar crashes into a tree after taking rudimentary skiing lessons. When the next episode begins, however, we discover that Oscar has died, and June is now coming to terms with her grief. Midway through the episode, she receives a transfer and promotion to Hawaii, yet she also dies on the plane, before it even takes off, by choking on a macadamia nut. In the third episode, we discover that June and Oscar are now living in what appears to be an afterlife of sorts, set in an area of Riverside, in South California, near where they previously lived. Specifically, they’re inhabiting a housing estate that has been roped off in the real world as a mould zone, suggesting that the connection between real life and afterlife is quite fluid and porous.
From there, the action continues to evolve and escalate, especially once June develops a rapport with their neighbor, Kase (Catherine Keener), and the two decide to run away to another settlement, Oceanside. Throughout all these sequences, however, there’s a consistent sense of finitude when it comes to relationships – the feeling that every possibility for relationships has been exhausted before it even begins, and that every possible ending for a romantic drama or comedy has already been articulated. Time and again, series creators Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard include montage sequences that go much longer than might be expected, suggesting that every effort that June and Oscar make to escape the constrictions of coupledom simply leads to a replication of it. In romantic narratives, marriage is often used as a way of differentiating between past, present and future, but the possible futures for June and Oscar are already so mapped out by their present and past that the temporality of the series compresses whenever they try to imagine how their relationship will proceed or develop. One of the main characters in Riverside is Mark (Noah Robbins), a teenage boy who died in the seventies. While he’s one of the youngest residents in terms of his age, he’s one of the oldest in terms of when he died. As a result, his efforts to envisage a romantic future clash with his reflections upon the romantic past, making it impossible for him – or us – to use romance to anchor the present.
That sense of endless repetition gives Forever a science fictional vibe, but its sci-fi depends upon uncanny normality, rather than overt ruptures in reality – the way in which the repetition of everyday routines becomes estranging and unsettling when it is accelerated and compressed. While the series jumps around in time, and presents time at different paces, the experience of time never really seems to change, just as the same intensified awareness of the present moment suffuses every scene. In that sense, the series is perfectly suited to the SoCal setting, and the SoCal architecture, where the action unfolds, since these spaces have been particularly mobilised over the last decade to suggest something eternalizing, or atemporal, about reproduced images as we now experience them. The SoCal light, in particular, floods every frame, suggesting a visual field that has become so pristine, and so perfect in its airbrushed precision, that it signals the point at which humans have conceded control of images to images themselves, and the technology for reproducing images has bypassed human agency as a key point of mediation. If Riverside feels like an afterlife, it’s not really because of any supernatural happenings, but because June and Oscar seem to have stepped into a space where images organise humans much like a higher power, which is perhaps why Riverside also plays like intensified version of the present too.
There’s an inherent paradox at the heart of Forever, then, since the more that Yang and Hubbard try to freshen and fashion their images into something transcendent, the more their images transcend their agency, and the agency of their characters, resulting in a series of looming, luminous voids that gradually displace and distort the action. More specifically, they displace the white heterosexual couple as the stabilising point of the regular romantic narrative, as evinced in the spectacular sixth episode, “Andre and Sarah.” At first, this episode seems completely disconnected from the rest of the series, following a pair of realtors, played by Hong Chau and Jason Mitchell, who are Asian-American and African-American respectively, as they meet in an open house, and then embark upon an intermittent affair that lasts decades. While this affair goes through different stages, it always takes place in houses primarily designed for white people, whether they are romancing during an open house session or, later on, temporarily living together in one of the houses they are selling. Meanwhile, they both get married, to white people, but their real estate lives paradoxically provide them with a space where they don’t have to pass for white, or aspire to white narratives of romantic upward mobility. Finally, in the last scene, after Andre has died, we realise June has been watching them both from her version of Riverside, from beyond the grave, prompting her to take the plunge and finally leave Oscar.
This takes her to Oceanside, which at first seems like a space that is outside the constrictions that both real life and Riverside enforced. After a while, though, she starts to realise that the hedonism of Oceanside isn’t really all that less repetitive than the marital stability of Riverside, especially once Oscar tracks her down and confronts her for leaving him. Unwilling to return to marriage, but unwilling to define herself against marriage either, June convinces Oscar to simply follow her into the luminous voids of the film where heterosexual coupledom has been most disrupted and distorted. At first, this means encouraging him in his plans to build a boat and sail away, and sharing the vast expanse of the beach with him. More dramatically, however, she eventually convinces him to walk into the ocean, and traverse the sea bed with her, until they arrive at another shore, somewhere far from both Riverside and Oceanside. In the haunting last sequence of the series, all the airbrushed light and abstract space of Forever is condensed to a series of underwater vistas, as the water intensifies and crystallises the SoCal light, before June and Oscar emerge on a distant beach, and the series ends. Somewhere, it seems, there is a world beyond marriage, compulsory coupledom and heteronormative convention, a world where romance is still possible, but Forever can only frame it as an absence, as something we can’t yet formalize or visualise. And that space of possibility is also what makes this such a poignantly evocative series – a departure from so much of what we know about romance, rather than an arrival, and a text that ultimately feels made for the future, and for the futurity within our present.