I am perhaps the hardest-core Will Arnett fangirl in the country. When I went to Google for images for this article, the first suggested result was “Will Arnett Smile” because I was drunk and had to show pictures of his lovely, lovely face to everyone in the room. Bojack Horseman, the brilliant animated comedy in which he stars, is pretty much the best thing I’ve seen in years. Gob Bluth is without a doubt my favourite thing about the near-flawless Arrested Development. I will fight you on this. I will fight you on this.
So, when I heard that he was co-writing and starring in a new Netflix dramedy, Flaked, I was pretty pumped. And sure, maybe Love didn’t live up to my expectations, but this was Will Arnett, matched up with Mitch Hurwitz (of Arrested Develoment fame) as executive producer. This would be a terrible distraction from the last few weeks at uni and I was going to adore it.
The show revolves around Chip, played by Arnett, an apparently sober alcoholic who killed someone drunk-driving ten years previously. Surrounded by friends and lovers in the sun-soaked backdrop of Venice Beach, he’s become hooked on platitudes and mantras to try and prove to himself that he’s still a worthwhile person, able to help the people around him, particularly those in his Alcoholics Anonymous group. And yes, if you’ve seen Bojack Horseman, you’re all too aware that Arnett has already done a nigh-on perfect midlife crisis show that successfully subverts scores of tropes that genre suffers from. All the tropes, in fact, that Flaked wheezingly plods through over it’s excruciating eight-episode run.
When you’re treading territory as old as this- a middle-aged white guy has problems, let’s make a show/movie/book about it!- it’s inevitable that you’re going to hit some issues, but come on. Arnett bangs a series of hot young women, as do his equally middle-aged cohorts, even as almost every woman in the show proceed to reveal themselves as liars, emotionally abusive crazies, or vindictive bitches, several of whom are treated like utter crap by the male cast only to come sweetly, passively back. And then there’s Arnett’s on-screen ex-wife, played by Heather Graham- a blond, successful TV actress who apparently always “makes him feel small”. I’m not saying Arnett intended to take a swipe at his real-life blond, successful TV actress ex-wife Amy Poehler with this character, I’m just saying that one could pretty easily read it that way.
When you write a show which also stars you and features certain aspects that could be construed as reflecting your own life, you run the risk of falling into fantasy territory. Arnett is a folk hero for the local community, a stud with decades-younger women, beloved by all- and yes, I understand that a lot of it is meant to be a façade, but it all swings uncomfortably close to cheap wish-fulfilment, and that’s never interesting to watch. Again, I’m not saying it actually Flaked actually is the fantasy of the people behind it, but it certainly reads like that way too often for my liking.
Don’t get me wrong- I still think this is a pelter of a performance from Arnett (and, indeed, the rest of the oft-underserved cast), I’m just not sure the show has any clue what to do with it. Chip is so full of shit that it’s frequently impossible to figure out when he’s being sincere and when he’s just trying to snake his way into the pants of some inevitably-younger woman. Moral ambiguity- hell, having an outright bad guy as your leading character- has been done so well over the last few years (yo, Breaking Bad, haven’t thought about you in a while), Flaked really has no excuse for how ill-defined they make Chip’s motivations. He’s a tantalising, so-close-to-brilliant character that falls painfully short at every turn. As he spouts the story about his drunk-driving to his AA group in the opening seconds on the show, is he doing it to change lives or to garner sympathy? Hnadfuls of these moments are sprinkled throughout the show, scenes and conversations and lines that could have been so impactful is the show actually made a decision about his character. Is he an ultimately good guy using glossy lies and platitudes as a way to cover up his personal failings? Or is he a manipulative douchewad who doesn’t care about the people around him but still wants to feel needed? It’s not ambiguity if it’s just straight-up confusion. If Flaked had made a decision one way or the other, it could have been brilliant.
And there’s the sad part about Flaked. Much like Love, it could have been something absoloutely great. Yeah, the genre’s been done to death, but Arnett and the rest of the cast put in solid performances and there’s flashes of something nuanced and insightful under the tropey bullshit and the refusal to flesh out characters and the central indecision about Chip’s character. With another season already commissioned, I can only hope that Flaked gets in bearings and leaves it’s weird, confusing first season behind it.