To some people, the world seems cloudier, grayer, and more fraught than it used to be. This anxiety about the state of humanity is at the heart of why prominent pundits raise concerns about “cancel culture,” or fret about perceived censorship. Navigating the world was supposed to be easier for them. Now it is not. So what’s different?
Like The Twilight Zone, but with stories that feel inspired by cacophonous social-media debates, each episode of FX on Hulu’s anthology series The Premise presents a standalone morality tale about an expressly modern concern. Usually, there’s an ironic or absurd twist. Evidence that would free a victim of police brutality from incarceration is found in the background of a white guy’s sex tape — will he choose to be the ally he says he is, even if it means publicly shaming himself? The father of a school-shooting victim starts to work for the gun lobby — why would he choose to do that? One of the wealthiest men alive offers a business opportunity to his childhood bully: design a butt plug that will “change the world” — is it a prank or a genuine offer?
Each episode is introduced by series creator and former The Office star B.J. Novak, but his introductions weren’t yet available in the screeners made available to critics. That’s a frustrating omission, because the biggest question The Premise raises is one of framing. Novak’s stated ambition, per promotional material, is to boldly tackle big issues from our world today. While the writer may want the stories to do the talking, to spur thoughtful conversations without easy answers, it’s hard to judge The Premise’s effectiveness without knowing how he’s prompting people to take these stories. What does he consider the significant questions posed by his stories? How seriously does he want people to take tales of butt-plug design and social-media blowouts?
The Premise bills itself as “an anthology of now,” which raises a vague feeling of kinship with Charlie Brooker’s techno-warning series Black Mirror. But mostly, Novak’s show feels like a collection of short films about the ways navigating the world as a white person of privilege has recently become tricky. Its stories derive their tension from shifting dynamics of power and privilege: A young keyboard warrior (Ben Platt) gets to put his money where his mouth is, but at the cost of his dignity. Is that fair? If a comfortable, reasonably successful writer (Lola Kirke) has her bubble of affirmation pierced by a mean Instagram commenter, should that commenter be confronted with the emotional toll they caused?
Almost all of these conflicts are the result of privilege being confronted by those outside of it. Nearly all of them are personal in their stakes and concerns. Only one, “Moment of Silence,” which tackles the gun lobby, really wrestles with an institution. The stories weigh the morality of individual actions in a world that the powerful made asymmetrical.
There are sparks of brilliance in every episode, fantastic confrontations that are both understated and cathartic. They’re remarkably well set up, given the episodes’ 30-minute runtime. But while that brevity is great for The Premise’s provocations, it does a disservice to its subject matter. The bigness of the issues collide against the smallness of the format, reducing each story to an empathy test. Each episode asks whether you can see why each character played by a famous actor did the things you just saw.
And of course you can — they’re all great actors. But actually wrestling with an issue demands that the forces that move individual players also need to be examined, and in an effort to avoid coming across as didactic, The Premise places its characters in a rhetorical vacuum, asking viewers to drink deeply from a well that an observant audience knows is poisoned. Novak’s show comes across as the work of a self-styled peacemaker, someone who wants people to acknowledge each other’s views and get along, but also someone who refuses to articulate any beliefs of their own.
This is The Premise’s fundamental problem: Even the peacemakers have beliefs and biases. The people “just asking questions” are choosing what questions to ask. And the folks who just want us all to get along? While they may have a point — it is, to quote Olivia Rodrigo, brutal out there — it’s also quite possible that sentiment is driven by a desire for a return to a peaceful life where they didn’t have to think about the plight of other people.
The grab-bag anthology approach embraced by The Premise does it no favors — none of its episodes articulate a reason why the world seems so fraught, it’s just taken for granted. But who is it fraught for? These episodes present an answer (people who were, until recently, otherwise comfortable), just maybe not the one they intend to. For most of these characters, the world was much simpler. In its weakest moments, The Premise is completely uninterested in why. If it did, someone might accuse it of taking a side.