'Life & Beth' review: Amy Schumer goes back to LI in her new series (Now streaming)
SERIES "Life & Beth"
WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming March 18 on Hulu.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Beth (Amy Schumer) has the beginnings of a midlife crisis. She's bored with her job (selling wine in Manhattan), and doofus boyfriend Matt (Kevin Kane) and has no idea what's become of her father, Leonard (Michael Rapaport). She's close to her sister Ann (Susannah Flood), but distant from her mother Jane (Laura Benanti). Then, tragedy strikes. Afterward, Beth decides to move back home to Long Island, partly to be near some close friends, like Kiana (Yamaneika Saunders) and partly to figure out herself and her life. When making a customer call at a North Fork vineyard, she meets farmer John (Michael Cera), who is blunt-speaking and, like Schumer's real-life husband, Chris Fischer, also appears to be on the autism spectrum.
This ten-parter — created by Schumer, who also wrote several of the episodes — toggles back and forth between Beth's present-day life, and her 8th grade self (Violet Young) when the two sisters and Jane lived on Long Island. And yes, "Life" is indeed based on Schumer's own upbringing in Rockville Centre, and features a couple of scenes shot there and others at Angelo’s Pizzeria on Hempstead Avenue in Malverne, as well as a climactic one at Peter's Clam Bar in Island Park. (Scenes at the vineyard, for the most part, were shot upstate in northern Dutchess County.)
MY SAY "Life & Beth" is clearly autofiction, with an emphasis on the "auto" (autobiography), but also an alternate reality series that explores just one alt-reality: Who would Amy Schumer be if she wasn't Amy Schumer?
Theoretically there could be any number of Amys, countless Amys really, but "Life & Beth" locks into just one. Beth is a successful wine salesperson who grew up in a matchbox-sized house in Rockville Centre and who, approaching 40, fears she is becoming her mother or about to repeat her mother's mistakes. She hasn't put the fear into words, or even thoughts exactly, but the signs are all there. Boyfriend Matt is much like her own father — a feckless, rootless, life-of-the-party type — and she knows the relationship should end, but it drags on anyway.
Only the sudden death of her mother forces a reset where Beth can begin to envision an alternate-reality for Beth.
Correct: This is not the Schumer of "Trainwreck," or "Inside Amy Schumer," or all those R-rated specials for Netflix, but a Schumer you've never encountered before because this actually is a re-imagined version of her real life. That tends to make "Life & Beth" often more interesting than funny, and at times more poignant than either of those. It's also a treasure hunt for fans who will trip over all the Easter eggs that Schumer has placed here for their amusement or for hers. She has cast several legends from the New York comedy scene, like Murray Hill (HBO's "Somebody Somewhere"), who plays her boss at the wine company, and old friend (and fellow Rockville Centre native) Dave Attell, who plays a social-media obsessed rabbi. Another pal, Jon Glaser, pops up as manager of the North Fork vineyard — a surly twerp with a manbun who prompts Beth to bleakly observe, "I really missed Long Island and its people."
Even David Byrne — yes the David Byrne — finds his way in with a short, sharp cameo as a doctor who inquires about Beth's own worrisome wine-drinking habits.
Yet for those fans who really want to know what's going on here, reach for that old copy of Schumer's 2016 memoir, "The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo," where the chapter on her mother ("Mom") is effectively created scene for scene in the ninth episode entitled "MRI." Under the less-than-watchful attention of technician Trevor (a very funny Phil Wang), Beth undergoes an MRI and as the machine cranks away, she relives a searing episode from 8th grade (Violet Young as tween Beth, by the way, is terrific). Without getting into too many details, it involves infidelity, divorce, and how her mother fractured one of the closest friendships she ever had. Afterward, Beth gropes her way forward to forgiving her mom. (And Trevor becomes what he really wants to become: A deejay)
"Life & Beth" is obviously personal for Schumer, and maybe cathartic as well. Childhood trauma does persist and it always helps to have a weapon — in this case, a TV series — to slay the demons. But with Beth as her proxy, an unexpected Schumer does emerge from the battle. Not nearly as blue (but still blue enough — don't worry about that), this one is older, wiser and surprisingly sentimental. A mom herself now, Schumer brings something else to "Beth." That might well be called "maturity."
BOTTOM LINE While the middle episodes slump, "Life & Beth" starts strong, ends strong, and features a lead with genuine dramatic chops.
Welcome to the big month of Amy Schumer.
Apart from being set to share Oscar-hosting duties with Wanda Sykes and Regina King when ABC broadcasts the movie industry's top event March 27, the former star of the Primetime Emmy and Peabody Award-winning ''Inside Amy Schumer'' gets back in the series game as Hulu debuts ''Life & Beth'' Friday, March 18.
Also the writer and/or director of most of the 10 episodes, the comedian-actress plays the title character, a personally and professionally successful wine distributor prompted by several major shocks to try to reconcile with her past ... shown in frequent flashbacks to her teen years.
''I think that Beth's definitely based on a side of me,'' Schumer says, ''and I think one of the things that surprises people is that I actually am an introvert. And I think so many of us have these conflicting sides of ourselves. I, as myself, feel supremely confident ... and also, I do consider myself as someone with really low self-esteem. I just think we're all hopefully evolving and trying to become the best versions of ourselves, so I wanted to show that dynamic.''
Along with her own character, Schumer notes, ''We wanted to also show a sort of more sensitive man. The toxic masculinity that we're all raised with hurts everybody, so I thought it was a really great opportunity to introduce sort of a gentler character.''
''Life & Beth'' co-star Cera maintains he was all for that, reasoning that ''I don't think that the show being driven by a woman has any real effect for me on the approach to a scene or anything. Amy's talent is inspiring and invigorating, and it makes you want to meet her at her level, which is a good thing. As soon as you meet Amy, being invited to work with her kind of eliminates any intimidation. You just feel included and excited.''
Schumer explains ''Life & Beth'' came in large part from a desire to expose her ''most vulnerable, darkest'' self. ''I always want to share that stuff because it also helps alleviate my pain about it, and it is sort of therapeutic. I'm careful about what I share about other people and always make sure that they greenlight it; whatever I'm writing, whatever I'm sharing, I make sure that it's OK with them.
''But in terms of me sharing stuff about myself, I'm sure I've shared more than some people would have cared for me to. I think it's helpful, and it feels really great and powerful to feel like you might be making somebody laugh and feel better about themselves.'' --ZAP2IT