Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph were talking on a recent morning about the many tiny, telling details of their characters on their upcoming series “Forever,” and the chemistry forged years ago on “Saturday Night Live” kept revealing itself as the natural key to their new show, which finds them playing a longtime couple.
“I have a relationship with some objects where I get so mad at them because they only have one job,” Armisen admits, empathizing with his character, who at a particularly low point in the series takes out his frustrations on a jammed kitchen drawer. “They just don’t deserve to keep going.”
“Do you talk to them?” Rudolph asks.
“I’ve definitely talked to them,” he responds. “I did something really crazy once. Remember when Palm Pilots came out? I had one that would not dock correctly. It just wouldn’t load up. And I got a bowl of water and I put the whole dock in it. I was like, ‘I asked you to do one thing.’ And I drowned it.”
“Wow,” Rudolph laughs, imagining the execution scene, “Did you fold your arms?”
“I’m like, ‘This is your time for you to do this, and you’re going to pick your own times?’” he says in mock aggravation, “Bye.”
“That’s fascinating, I love that story so much.”
That mix of intimacy and absurdity fits squarely in the wheelhouse for “Forever,” which arrives on Amazon Prime this Friday. Written by “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard of “Parks and Recreation,” the series isn’t easy to talk about because of the way it plays with your expectations. In the first few episodes, the series changes twice before finally revealing what exactly it’s about.
“You’re told in television you have to know exactly what the show is about as quickly as possible when you start a pilot,” says Hubbard, who was reached on a recent conference call with Yang. “I think we liked the idea of not letting the viewer know exactly what this show is going to be about beyond that it’s Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, and they’re in it together for quite a while.”
“My recommendation to my friends has been to watch two or three in a row at the beginning and really get a taste of it,” adds Yang.
With that in mind, it’s best if we don’t talk about where the show ends up. Suffice to say that Armisen’s and Rudolph’s characters — Oscar and June — are initially hoping to upend some of the routine that has built up in their relationship by going somewhere new for their annual vacation. And, well, they do.
But setting aside the aspects of the show that are better left to be discovered, “Forever” is often a surprisingly raw and often melancholy story about love and commitment. And despite the affectionate, natural rapport that’s regularly seen between its two leads, especially as their characters riff together about oddball thought experiments such as “the best way to spend a half an hour” or “the best way to sit,” the show is primarily concerned with how a relationship can fall apart.
“The first day we had to shoot a scene where we were fighting, and we had to apologize to each other a lot,” Rudolph says. “That was really strange for us.”
“Because we really do know each other pretty well,” Armisen adds.
“It’s like, ‘I’m so sorry I’m going to yell at you, I’m so sorry,’” she says, and they both laugh.
Their characters live in Riverside, which for the purposes of the show is a sleepy suburbia where Oscar finds comfort and routine while June begins to ache for something more. Loaded with tract homes and sunshine, the show’s setting was a personal choice for Yang, who grew up in the area (he’s quick to clarify that June’s views are not his own: “Don’t come after me, Riverside,” he says).
But that sense of place also was a consideration for the show, which came together among many ideas Yang and Hubbard pitched their stars as they first began talking about working together. “We also liked the idea of putting Fred and Maya in the most normal conditions we could think of,” Hubbard adds. “It’s like, well, what if these two unbelievable comic actors were living together in Riverside as these very normal people?”
But more than an examination of a single couple’s struggles, “Forever” also explores the broader realities of long-term monogamy. A lovely and affecting episode featuring Jason Mitchell (“The Chi”) and Hong Chau (“Downsizing”) as two real estate agents recalls the rich digressions of Yang’s “Master of None,” and their story functions as a cautionary tale in a show that’s as concerned with the nuts-and-bolts tedium of a relationship as those lives that are left behind once a person chooses to partner with another.
“[“Forever”] is really a look at the things we tend not to look at when we think about relationships. The length of time,” says Rudolph, who has been in a relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson since 2001. “The day to day,” Armisen adds.
Armisen has been married twice, once for six years to U.K. musician Sally Timms and then to actress Elisabeth Moss for less than a year, ending in 2010. In 2016, he spoke on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast about his past issues with intimacy, a form of which he said he found in his longtime collaboration with Carrie Brownstein on IFC’s “Portlandia,” which aired its eighth and final season this year.
“If you really do ask people in long-term relationships or marriages about this idea of being with the same person for the rest of your life, who knows what you would get?” Rudolph continues. “Are they thinking, ‘Did I make a mistake? Am I with the person I’m meant to be with?’ There’s so many stages to relationships. I feel like I’ve loved examining this couple.”
Though the show has a cozy relationship with the darker realities of commitment, “Forever” feels like a hopeful story. But when confronted with considering whether Oscar and June — much less anybody else — are right for each other in the long run, the showrunners don’t have an answer.
“I think there’s a little bit of optimism at the end, but certainly the way some of it is written and shot, there’s a feeling of isolation,” Yang admits. “I think we want people to draw their own conclusions.”
“We think about it all the time,” adds Hubbard. “One reason we wanted to write the show is because we don’t know.”
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Any time
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)