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‘Life & Beth’ Review: Amy Schumer’s Hulu Series Is an Ambitious Look at Adapting in Adulthood

The comedian's first TV series since "Inside Amy Schumer" bends genres to suggest a rich and complicated vision of what it means to be a grown-up.

Life and Beth Amy Schumer series Hulu

Amy Schumer in “Life & Beth”

Jeong Park / Hulu

Selling is an act of disappearing on “Life & Beth.” You sell best by asking questions, nodding, dispatching a well-timed “staaaaaahp” meant to connote active listening in the key of sorority sister. You sell by making buyers feel interesting to someone other than themselves.

Amy Schumer, returning to television for the first time since Comedy Central’s shrewd “Inside Amy Schumer” finished in 2016, plays Beth, a wine rep with a talent for puffery. But the 10-episode Hulu series picks up on the day her ennui spills over into her sales pitch. Beth has a boyfriend she doesn’t love, a career that doesn’t suit her interests, and a Manhattan address that looks better on other people’s wedding invitations than it feels to go home to. We’ve seen Schumer in the throes of an early onset midlife crisis before (“Trainwreck,” “I Feel Pretty”), but never with this much raw sincerity. Beth’s arrested development, along with her comic deflections, are rooted in adolescent trauma that even the series — ambitious if inconsistent — underplays.

It’s tricky to describe “Life & Beth” without addressing the death that the punny series title foreshadows and which happens in the first episode. Suffice to say, grief sends Beth into a period of compulsory self-reckoning. She retreats to her childhood home on Long Island, finding solace in old friends (Yamaneika Saunders stands out as a single, non-Jewish mom committed to dating Jewish men) while plotting a new path forward. She trades her boyfriend, Matt (Kevin Kane as a selfish champagne rep a little too eager to ring the office’s novelty sales bell), for John, a local farmer allergic to all forms of politesse, including whispering in public and dressing up for a funeral. Michael Cera is cast to perfection, somehow able to imbue John’s clumsy directness with charm. He’s the opposite of the sales people who populate Beth’s regular life: candid, unapologetic, outdoorsy.

Life and Beth Hulu Amy Schumer Michael Cera

Amy Schumer and Michael Cera in “Life & Beth”

Jeong Park / Hulu

But changing your life is never as straight-forward as changing your circumstances. The longer Beth spends at home, the more she’s revisited by the traumas of her childhood, dramatized in punishing flashbacks. (Newcomer Violet Young gives an affecting, naturalistic performance as young Beth.) Her dad (Michael Rapaport) was unreliable and sometimes absent; her mom (Laura Benanti) cycled through boyfriends along with the personalities required to accommodate them. There was a horrific accident that left Beth afraid of the water and other, darker diagnoses, which the show’s tone, thoughtful but still irreverent, struggles to match.

Which isn’t to say Schumer lacks the dramatic chops. Rather it’s the distance between the crest of the series’ broadest comic moments  (think dick jokes, set pieces not limited to but including a flash mob, karaoke, and a magic mushroom trip episode to rival the high watermark set by Judd Apatow’s “Love”) and its grimmest troughs that’s discombobulating. Laughter can be strong medicine; it can also feel insufficient.

“Do you have any preexisting conditions?” a doctor asks Beth when she’s experiencing back pain, to which she replies, “I’m a woman.” Its success as a punchline is the measure of its pathos. Beth is 37 years old, kind of single, living at home, repairing her relationship with her sister, figuring out what she likes and confronting who she is. Written, produced, and created by 40-year-old Schumer, “Life & Beth,” which stars the comedian and is also occasionally directed by her, is a story about a woman on the cusp of her forties. But it would be reductive to call it a coming-of-age story pegged to the delayed timeline of modern life, or even a story about going home again. Yes, it hits some of those familiar notes: long neglected friendships re-blossom not unlike you’ll find in a Hallmark movie, she dates the wrong guy — a very funny Jonathan Groff as a small-town personal trainer mesmerized by Beth’s glitzy life in “The City” — on the way to dating the right one.

But “Life & Beth,” at its best, represents an alternative to those genres, suggesting a rich and complicated vision of what it means to be a grown-up. To live is to be constantly revising, acknowledging that preferences and priorities shift, sometimes so slowly and subtly that our own unhappiness can surprise us. You can come of age and then get lost again; you can go home only to realize that some things are better left in the past. “Learning anything is useful,” Beth tells John between washing freshly harvested root vegetables and shoveling a chicken coop, both for the first time. She mostly means it. Beth was eventually dissatisfied with her life of selling in the city, but she never claims to regret it. An enriching life will have fallow seasons, like the one she’s just emerged from, and periods of self-discovery, like the one Beth is living through right now.

Grade: B

“Life & Beth” premieres Friday, March 18 on Hulu. All 10 episodes will be released at once.

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