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Television Till death do they not part: Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen are married ghosts in new series Forever

In March, 2017, Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen asked Alan Yang, the Emmy-winning co-creator of the Netflix comedy Master of None, to breakfast. The former Saturday Night Live cast members had thought about doing a TV show together, and they enlisted Yang to pitch them a few ideas. Yang immediately called Matt Hubbard – they’d both written for Parks and Recreation a few years earlier – and the pair got to work brainstorming concepts. “The one they liked,” Yang recalls, “was literally one line and it just said, ‘Maya and Fred are ghosts who don’t haunt people.’”

That stray line became Forever, a poetic and somewhat alien half-hour dramedy about the existential angst of marriage. The season’s eight episodes, streaming on Amazon Prime Video as of Sept. 14, track the relationship of Oscar (Armisen) and June (Rudolph), a married couple living a pleasant if uneventful life in suburban California. At the end of the first episode, Oscar dies in a freak ski accident. At the end of the second, June dies, too, after choking on a macadamia nut. The rest of the series unfolds in a kind of banal version of heaven, where June and Oscar are reunited and – to June’s horror – live their afterlives in much the same fashion as they lived on Earth. “How long does this go on for? I mean, what’s the point of this?” June asks Oscar. “Well,” he responds, “what was the point of the thing before this?”

A year ago, the since-departed head of Amazon Studios announced he was on the hunt for a Game of Thrones-style blockbuster series. Now, the streaming service has put out the virtual opposite: a cerebral, quiet, slow series that puts character over plot. A show about the unending sameness of a dull marriage might sound like a tough sell. But as with any relationship worth pursuing, Forever requires faith and rewards commitment. And like a lifelong union, the series is constantly evolving. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, it reveals itself anew.

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A scene from Forever.

Colleen Hayes/Amazon Prime Studios

Forever takes a familiar format – a half-hour comedy about a handsome married couple – and scrambles it, presenting the banal in a strange and uncannily beautiful light. The show’s version of heaven looks nice enough, but the creators and their production designer, Amy Williams, added details to indicate that something’s just a little off. Oscar and June’s eternal resting place was filmed in a cul-de-sac in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles. The midcentury-modern houses of the dead look architecturally similar, which adds to the sense of “boredom and sameness,” Hubbard says. But Williams had all the cars and mailboxes removed from the streets, which emphasizes the characters’ sense of isolation, particularly June’s, and gives the neighbourhood an eerily empty vibe.

Ironically, the otherworldly element grounds the series, providing a concrete, physical (or rather, metaphysical) framework to the big question that haunts any marriage: Is this it? “Sometimes it does seem like a marriage will just never end,” Hubbard says, “and this one literally will never end.”

In the streaming age, that description could easily apply to television itself. Series no longer compete for limited weekly timeslots, but rather for the attention of a viewership that in 2017 had its pick of more than 500 original scripted series. Untethered from the calendar and clock, TV floats through a seemingly infinite online space. Forever not only stands out in a crowded field, it takes full advantage of the narrative opportunities that streaming provides.

“We wanted the show to feel different,” Yang says, “and one of the crazy things we thought of was a show where people don't really know what it’s about until episode three or even four.” That mode of storytelling only really works for episodic TV, Yang points out, and particularly for a show that dumps a whole season on the viewer at once. “In a way, it’s the most streaming-era show ever,” he says.

For Hubbard, who has also written for NBC sitcoms 30 Rock and Superstore, Forever taught him that plot, particularly in a comedy, can be overrated. “There’s an obsession on some shows to have an act-break moment every six minutes, and that’s not what people, I think, remember about comedies, where you just want to care about these people.”

It didn’t hurt to cast two actors who are close friends in real life as the show’s central couple – what Yang calls the show’s “secret weapon.” Viewers who know Armisen and Rudolph primarily from SNL may be surprised by the sober, sincere performances they turn in on Forever. Rudolph in particular is the emotional spine of the series, bringing subtle humour and pathos to her portrayal of a woman who’s not quite unhappy in her partnership, but craves something new.

That craving becomes Forever’s central conflict, but Yang and Hubbard didn't want to suggest that Oscar and June are miserable together.

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“One of the ways you can show a couple does have some merits is by just having them be funny together,” Yang says. “Fortunately, we’re blessed with two of the funniest people in the world.”

One of the first scenes they filmed was of Oscar and June in a car, headed to the ski resort where Oscar will meet his untimely end. The couple starts to banter about the best way to spend 30 minutes, a largely scripted conversation that Rudolph and Armisen embellished with improvisations. “They’re sort of talking over each other and laughing at what the other person’s saying,” Hubbard says. “It felt like two people who really care about each other having a funny conversation.”

Forever’s first season ends on a vague yet hopeful note, and the creators already have ideas for a second season, Amazon willing. They envision the series going on indefinitely, in theory at least – kind of like a marriage. “Marriages are incredibly long and complex, and I feel like the easier way to do this show was, they get married and it starts to get boring and they hate each other and she decides eventually to leave,” Hubbard says. “We all felt, that’s not what a marriage is. A marriage is like a wave. There are ups and downs. And I think what we were trying to ultimately say is, it is worth it for these two people to ride those waves together.”

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