Photo: Marcus Price/ HULU
It’s a tale as old as time. Woman moves to the big city and pursues a semi-successful career she only sort of likes. Woman dates guy who looks good but is not good to her. Spurred by a family emergency, woman returns home, expecting to hate it. Woman reconnects with her roots, with her real self, and with the meaning of Christmas. Okay, it’s not always Christmas, but that’s the context in which this particular arc is most familiar: romance novels, Hallmark originals, movies in which a woman in high heels steps in the muddy fields of authenticity and falls headfirst into the hesitant but conveniently located arms of the guy who will actually be right for her.
That arc is familiar for a reason: When done well, it can be very satisfying. This is part of what’s so fascinating about Life & Beth, the new Hulu series created by and starring Amy Schumer. TV has made dozens of projects that prestige-ify crime-based genre fiction, and Life & Beth is essentially that, except instead of jumping from the popularity of police procedurals into a show like The Wireit’s a boutique comedy translation of the You Can’t Go Home Again (Or Can You?) subgenre of romance stories.
Schumer plays Beth, a salesperson at a wine-distribution company who is doing fine in her career and in her life but is also desperately trying to ignore all the parts of herself that are dissatisfied by simply doing fine. Her boyfriend, Matt (Kevin Kane), is hot and apparently successful, even if he’s also kind of a thoughtless idiot; her mother (played by Laura Benanti) seems to be put-together and well meaning, but there are deep, obvious undercurrents of fury and a bad history. At the start, the choice to cast Benanti as Schumer’s mom seems very weird — they are nearly the same age — but that reasoning becomes clear shortly, when Beth gets a call that her mother has died unexpectedly. Beth transfers from Manhattan to Long Island so that she can deal with the funeral and her mother’s belongings.
Life & Beth is not quite a prestige-comedy version of a Hallmark movie from that point on, but it’s close, and I mean that as a warm compliment. Beth meets someone who does not fit into her own vision of a guy she’d like to be with, a taciturn farmer played by Michael Cera, and then, inevitably, they are drawn to each other. She reconnects with her high-school friends and a host of wacky local characters, played by a stacked roster of comedy talent including Yamaneika Saunders, Murray Hill, Larry Owens, Rosebud Baker, Gary Gulman, and LaVar Walker. At some point, the guest cast of a show is so notable that it almost feels egregious — roles for both David Byrne and Jonathan Groff are what really tip Life & Beth over into Oh, okay! I see what you’re doing! territory. But it’ also so fun to watch all these delightful weirdos occupying the same space, even when the entire point seems to be casting Gulman as a guy named Shlomo introduces so he can show up and himself over and over.
As feels almost obligatory for the more serious, more thought-provoking version of a genre romance, Life & Beth twists Beth’s current life together with a long series of flashbacks to her adolescence. The performances and general approach to those scenes are tender and poignant: Most of Benanti’s work on the show is in the flashback portion, and Violet Young’s portrayal of Beth as a teenager is fantastic. While the flashbacks are better than many similar constructions on other series, though, they still fall into some of the same frustrating traps. Beth can’t accept her current self until she grapples with parts of her childhood that she has been ignoring, and even though that’s completely plausible, these flashbacks sometimes have an air of arithmetic neatness — this trauma plus this surprising discovery equals an adult who is fucked up in this particular way. Life & Beth is better than that, but it still assumes an enormous investment in the specifics of Beth’s past, and it’s hard not to feel like that gets in the way of the Beth we actually want to spend time with.
The other notable element of Life & Beth is its relationship with Schumer’s own life and the way that autofiction and a specific conceit of authenticity color Beth’s story. This is the second half-hour series this year to take a performer’s life and fictionalize it into a story about returning home: HBO’s glorious Somebody Somewhere tells a similar story about a woman who has moved back to her hometown, in which comedian and singer Bridget Everett plays Sam, an alter-ego version of herself. In Life & Beth, Schumer’s life is not Beth’s life, but there are obvious parallels, most especially in Cera’s character, John. Although neither Beth nor John give it a name, John is written with qualities that echo Schumer’s real-life husband, Chris, a chef who grew up on a Martha’s Vineyard farm and who is on the autism spectrum.
There are two different conceptions of what makes a woman’s story worth taking seriously at play in Life & Beth. The first is that undercurrent of autofiction, the idea that tells a version of your own story, something taken from your real life, is legitimate and valuable in a way that something purely fictional is not. The other is a specific framing for what counts as real and grounded. When Beth walks around Manhattan with her uncomfortable, ill-fitting pencil skirt and her unhappy business smile, we know this is not real, not in the way that a carrot dug out of the ground is real. Likewise, we watch Beth laugh happily while she dunks a bunch of Swiss chard into a galvanized tub of water, and we know that this is what an authentic experience looks like.
This is hardly a flaw in Life & Beth; Finding love by way of a rural-themed return to preindustrialized paradise is a classic feature of that Finding Yourself by Going Home romance genre. The big city is not for you! We were all happier in a prelapsarian vision of agricultural honesty! Touch the dirt where your food grows! Life & Beth fulfills all the dictates of that trope and cannily ties it to the autofictional parts of Schumer’s story. Beth’s skills as a salesperson are at odds with John’s distaste for exaggeration or upselling, and it’s not hard to extrapolate from their arguments what it might be like to feel at odds with your comedian spouse or to get frustrated with your partner’s unblinking bluntness. But in great romantic fashion, while Beth and John frequently do not operate on the same wavelength, they are drawn into something fundamental and fascinating in each other.
At times, Life & Beth does not manage to fully integrate all the pieces it’s trying to pull together. The elements adapted from Schumer’s own romantic life get bogged down when the show is obliged to swerve into Beth’s childhood, and the overlay of tradcore aesthetics can be so on the nose that it’s a touch distracting. (I’m willing to accept that some of this may be my own alarming susceptibility to images of people lovingly lovingly organic produce.) growing, Life & Beth hits the spot more often than not, and it’s fun to watch Schumer in passion-project mode. We can only dream that this kicks off a wave of prestige streaming adaptations of other familiar romance stories that will be as robust and well funded as the endless parade of anti-hero darkness.