LIFE’S FUNNY LIKE THAT
An actor finds madness in the method, and a family shreds itself in pursuit of power and fortune
The Kominsky Method is created by Chuck Lorre, the man who has all but single-handedly kept the television studio comedy genre alive, producing some of TV’s biggest hits of the past three decades including the original Roseanne, Cybill, Grace Under Fire, Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men. It’s the uniquely American art form known as the multi-camera sitcom, typically staged like a Broadway play on a deliberately artificial-looking set with no fourth wall.
An audience files into the soundstage to watch and laugh, and several cameras, usually four, capture every scene from a variety of angles to allow for more options in editing. The audience’s laughter is retained as a laugh track. And Lorre still hardly pauses for breath, with The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon and Mom, according to CBS News, averaging more than 40 million viewers a week early this year, led by the single most-watched broadcast on TV: The Big Bang Theory.
Now he has teamed with Netflix to move from the passive studio audience and all those cameras to a so-called single-camera comedy with no laugh track called The Kominsky Method, an eight-episode series that he cowrote with Al Higgins and David Javerbaum. Michael Douglas stars as Sandy Kominsky, a failed actor turned acting coach. His agent, Norman, played by the inimitable Alan Arkin, is also his long-suffering friend. His job is equally unrewarding. The series is really about the way these two older friends attempt to cope with a changing, unfamiliar world as their ageing bodies start to leak or dry up.
“We are passengers on boats slowly sinking,” says Norman. His friend’s attitude is no less mordant. “It hurts to be human; it hurts like hell.” Norman’s wife is on her deathbed as the series opens, still joking with Kominsky about his seemingly inexhaustible supply of much younger girlfriends. (As is Norman: “Half your age is still an old woman. Do the math.”) Not only is Norman about to lose his wife, his daughter is an addict whom he has to check into rehab against her will. He no longer finds joy in living. Yes, folks, this is a comedy and it’s humour with an acerbic edge that quickly catches you with the emotion that underlies it.
Nancy Travis co-stars as Lisa, a 50-something acting student who isn’t the usual course attendee. Recently divorced and with a truculent 18-year-old son at home, she gets to know Sandy during their lessons and a late-in-life romance begins to blossom. The scenes between Travis and Douglas are highlights of the first episode. She’s one of his students who can actually act and is interested in the various theories that Kominsky propounds rather grandly in his classes, the others more interested in how to prepare for the hair shampoo auditions.
For Sandy, who once was a well-regarded actor in Hollywood and slept with so many stars he can hardly recall — Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton and Faye Dunaway are among them — death is the next big adventure, but in the meantime he believes he can cheat it by living on in the memory of his students.
Unlike Stanislavski, whom Sandy references in his lessons, it’s not clear what the Kominsky method actually is, and his students seem to be as confused as most actors are in classes where they try to make fictional characters somehow real. “The actor is playing God,” he informs them at one point, and later: “Acting is how we explore what it is to be human.” In a droll fashion the episode titles derive from the celebrated Stanislavski manual An Actor Prepares, so we have An Actor Avoids, An Agent Grieves and A Prostate Enlarges.
“We talk a lot about prostates on the show,” Lorre told TV critics and reporters recently at the Television Critics Association press tour for the show. And with Arkin and Douglas, 84 and 73, respectively, his material seems on the money. “The show began with my desire to write about what I’m living, which is getting older, and entropy and dissolution of form, the decay of the flesh,” Lorre explained. “It has to be funny, otherwise it’s heartbreaking.”
And The Kominsky Method is funny and often lacerating, a kind of heartache comedy. The acting is of the highest quality, with Douglas, Arkin and Travis grinding many things within themselves emotionally and just letting the quintessence rise to the surface. Their creative reticence cannot be underrated. Created by Jesse Armstrong ( Peep Show, The Thick of It and In the Loop) and directed by Adam McKay, the funny man turned Oscar winner for The Big Short, Succession is a timely morality tale starring Brian Cox as the Lear-like Logan Roy, a curt, thrice-married, unflappable mogul who has given away his kingdom but now has decided to take it all back.
The series opens on Logan’s 80th birthday, a day that’s meant to be Coronation Day for the family but where he surprises his four fractious children by telling them he won’t, in fact, be stepping down as chief executive and chairman of Waystar Royco, the world’s fifth largest media conglomerate. Logan has a reputation for always being true to his word. Not this time.
Logan is so messianically certain of his righteousness that he divides his people into acolytes and apostates, and won’t acknowledge any middle ground. He plays secret games that only he understands, though there’s also a curious vulnerability about him, something that his third wife, the quietly mysterious Marcia, played with cool elegance by Hiam Abbass, fondly appreciates.
His decision puts a series of toxic conflicts in motion among his ruthless and spoiled children, delaying plans to turn over his empire to one of his sons, the Gordon Gekko-like Kendall (Jeremy Strong), only three years out of rehab, or “the nut house” according to his father, and ripping up 18 months of intense corporate strategy according to Kendall. He’s “Heir With the Flair”, according to Forbes magazine, almost bursting with a sense of entitlement.
Alan Ruck, Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook play the other Roy offspring, Connor, Roman and Siobhan, who’s known as “Shiv”, a moniker that becomes increasingly appropriate as the first episode unfolds. “She’s a power-hungry maniac who’ll do f..k-knows-what with it because she’s got her dad’s dick in some super max pussy grip and she’s juicing him before he croaks,” says an increasingly desperate Kendall.
Matthew Macfadyen, usually a character of upstanding rectitude, almost steals the show as Shiv’s crude husband Tom, a manager in the firm, amusingly trite when he gives Logan a Patek Philippe watch: “It’s incredibly accurate,” he says. “Every time you look at it, it tells you exactly how rich you are.” And Nicholas Braun plays out-of-his-depth cousin Greg, the son of Logan’s estranged brother (James Cromwell), hoping to find a purchase in a family business characterised by its disdain for its members.
Armstrong has rejected claims the series is based on the Murdochs, saying the show draws inspiration from, among others, British press baron Robert Maxwell, US publisher William Randolph Hearst and the extended Trump family. “And we even talked about the British queen and Charles, who has waited so long for his succession,” says Armstrong. “So there are loads of succession stories to draw on.” McKay says if you were to look at “any of these billionaire dynastic families that are having an outsized influence on our government and the way we perceive things and the law, it does amaze me that we don’t know more about them considering what an influence they have on our world”.
McKay directs using a visceral naturalistic handheld aesthetic, fluidly realised by cinematographer Andrij Parekh, reminiscent of The Thick of It. It creates a kind of mockumentary feeling to the proceedings, which for all the casually toxic dog-eat-dog goings-on possesses an irresistible comic dimension, making the show not so much a departure for Armstrong as, well, a succession. Showcase. is streaming on Netflix. airs on Thursday, 8.30pm, Fox
Alan Arkin, left, and Michael Douglas in The Kominsky Method
Brain Cox in a scene from Succession