For anyone who stopped watching “Modern Family” around the time it won a fifth Emmy for Best Comedy Series (aka five years ago), let “Weird City’s” premiere remind you why Ed O’Neill has sustained a career far broader than any one grumpy father figure. Sure, he’s been a dad’s dad on two iconic family sitcoms (plus “John From Cincinatti”), but O’Neill can pivot on a dime from amusement to anger, hope to heart-fall, and obliviousness to confusion. It’s this excellent comic timing combined by an eagerness to surprise that comes alive when he’s given material worth getting excited about. And his episode of Jordan Peele’s “Weird City” is pretty damn fun.
Set in a “not so distant future,” the YouTube original series frames its story around a society where the rich and poor are divided by a border wall. The “Haves” live “Above the Line,” in a clean, bustling metropolis filled with advanced technology and plenty of opportunities. The “Have Nots” live on the other side of the wall, “Below the Line,” where cheap beer and late-night diners are plentiful, but money is tight. Citizens can cross between worlds with the proper papers, but the quality of life divergence is extreme.
Each episode in the six-part first season tells a different story, starting with O’Neill’s entry, “The One.” Stu (Dylan O’Brien) is a former Have Not who moved to the Above the Line neighborhood after his mother created an app that helps delete unnecessary apps from your brain. But because he was born Below the Line, Stu didn’t get an assigned soulmate. So he goes to a dating service, takes an extremely invasive test, and waits for his wife to show up at his door that same night. To his surprise, Burt (O’Neill) knocks on his door instead. Neither man is gay, so they wonder together what went wrong with the test.
Saying that much is probably going too far, so let’s cut off the plot description right there. What matters is that the world-building is fast and funny; jokes about this dystopian culture pop up in the background or get tucked into spare seconds of dialogue, but they’re never ignored. “Weird City” is very funny, but it puts story and characters above commentary all the way through.
It would be very easy for creators Jordan Peele and Charlie Sanders to lean into the Trump of it all — cracking quips with a wink about how the wall blocks the Have Nots’ view of Trump tower, or nodding toward their rich, reality star dictator vacationing at Mar-a-Lago while Below the Line is hit by a hurricane. But that’s not what they’re doing here. “Weird City” brings a broad focus to its satire, even when the many quick-hit quips feel relevant.
The only other episode screened for critics is the finale, which stars Awkwafina and Yvette Nicole Brown as characters within a crime drama that’s airing for Above the Line viewers. As the short, 20-minute entry rolls on, the characters start to become more and more aware of themselves and what they’re doing. The Amy Heckerling-directed episode is insanely meta — Glail (Brown) points out clunky exposition and Charlotta (Awkwafina) fulfill’s the Chekhov’s Gun concept with brutal nonchalance. Most of the humor stems from breaking down expectations while acknowledging stereotypes, but it’s also just goofy, off-the-wall, experimental TV.
Without giving away either ending, what drives the series is its enthusiasm. Whether that means acknowledging where this country is headed from a socio-political standpoint or taking apart the false narratives driving our culture’s acceptance of certain separations, “Weird City” can go anywhere within this world — and it does. If Peele’s upcoming “Twilight Zone” reboot features half the open-minded inventiveness of “Weird City,” it’ll be a huge success for CBS All Access. But don’t sleep on this one. Ed O’Neill woke up for it, and so should you.
“Weird City” debuts Wednesday, February 13 on YouTube Premium.