[This review includes details from the first three episodes of Flaked season 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
At first glance, one could be forgiven for thinking Flaked, Will Arnett's new Netflix series, might once have gone by the title Californimitation. After all, it does bear a superficial resemblance to a now mercifully defunct Showtime series in its depiction of a thirsty creative type who whittles away his days putting out small personal fires while casually ignoring the fact that his whole life has essentially been charred to an unrecognizable crisp. Thankfully, Flaked attempts to distinguish itself in more interesting ways during its first three episodes, offering a glimpse at a recovering alcoholic and cad whose mask of sobriety (on both accounts) is his entire identity, and it is slowly sliding into his lap.
There's nothing strikingly original about Flaked and that's okays; it takes the same likeable a**hole Arnett is exceedingly good at portraying and puts him in a series of situations wherein he can readily let down those who rely on him. It's a take on the overused character who is exceptional at his job, but can't manage his personal life. This time, though, Arnett's Chip – a middle-aged furniture designer committed to helping others work the steps of AA, while gulping wine from a refrigerated Nalgene bottle marked "kombucha" – isn't really good at anything other than being a complete wreck of a person. Think of Chip as the emotional lovechild of Gob and BoJack Horseman.
But the series, co-written and produced by Arnett and Mark Chappell (its first two episodes are directed by Dark Knight cinematographer Wally Pfister), generously doesn't want to spend all its time in the gutter Chip seems intent on dragging himself into; it's too interested in the vibrancy and the beats and the specificity of its setting to wallow for too long in its protagonist's encroaching misery. And early on in the season, that may be the show's saving grace. Flaked is made stronger by its convincing sense of place. Set in Venice, California, the show spends a good amount of time moving from location to location, pushing its characters through the neighborhood, down the streets, through alleys, and on a bike down the occasional walking path to be verbally accosted by the finger-wagging foot traffic. This Venice feels lived-in, it is in some way or another a distinct part of each and every character, from Chip's friend/neighbor Dennis (David Sullivan) to his not-quite girlfriend he met in AA Kara (Lina Esco), to the charming, long-haired doofus Cooler (George Basil) who technically lives in Mar Vista and is constantly reminded of that fact.
In the opening moments of the series, Chip explains he killed a man while driving drunk and the state of California no longer wants him behind the wheel. While this is an enormous revelation the series doesn't seem terribly interested in exploring beyond its use as a tool to drop the audience into the deep end with Chip, it actually does one important thing: it forces the characters to be an active participant in their story's setting. No matter what is going on in the early episodes, Flaked finds a way to remind viewers of its location and to make it feel real and wholly a part of its characters' make-up, and that goes a long way in making a narrative that's content just wandering somewhat aimlessly feel a little more significant.
It isn't as though Flaked wants for conflict – there's plenty to go around with a character like Chip – but it's not as though there's much of a central plotline either. And that's okay. Some shows can get by on a vibe and some interestingly flawed personalities and Flaked might just be one of them. It's still early going, but in the first three episodes, the show manages to make a meal out of the scraps that are left of these characters' lives and there's something tasty in the exaggerated realness of people sort-of-failing to convince themselves they're committed to moving on from the past.
Most interesting perhaps is the spin Arnett puts on his familiar persona. His patented "I'm a bastard and I know it" smirk is still there, but it's been remanded to bit player status. It's easy to see that smirk being worn by a guy like Chip – it was likely on his face until the point he sobered up enough to realize he'd killed a man – and in that you can see how smart it is for a performer like Arnett to capitalize on his reputation as an actor by making it the subtext of the character he's playing. No one else could give the audience such a genuine sense of who this guy is without going into lengthy exposition and unnecessarily dense backstory. Chip isn't the person he presents himself as and Arnett does a great job of expressing how there's as much guilt in the deception as there is in denying his true self. The only problem is that his true self is basically a reprehensible human being.
Maybe Flaked is a redemption story to a certain degree, but it's something else, too. It's difficult to put a finger on whatever that is because the story can be so diffuse at times. One moment Chip's hurting his not-girlfriend's feelings by being the rake he's trying so hard not to be (e.g., sleeping with his ex-wife, played by Heather Graham), and the next he's maybe losing the building (owned by his ex-father-in law, played by Mark Boone Junior) that houses his furniture store. Meanwhile, he's fighting a losing battle against "swooping" in on Dennis' love interest London (Ruth Kearney), who is as scattered – if not more so – than everyone else on the show.
It may be comprised of a group of scattered individuals, wandering aimlessly through a town fighting a losing battle to retain its distinct character and charm, but Flaked makes the search for purpose and the ominous shadow of an uncertain future feel compelling in its own low-key way. It's light and prone to wandering, but the symmetry between the show's characters and its setting gives this serio-comedy a necessary layer that distinguishes it enough to make watching an enjoyable, but not necessarily substantial experience.
All episodes of Flaked season 1 are available on Netflix. Screen Rant will have more on the series in the coming days.
Photos: Adam Rose/Netflix