The Oscar-winning writer and Oscar-nominated director of the satirical horror film "Get Out" is also the host, narrator and executive producer, through his Monkeypaw Productions, of the upcoming CBS All Access revival of "The Twilight Zone"; writer and director of the soon-to-be-released theatrical horror thriller "Us"; the co-writer and producer of a 2020 “Candyman” remake; and a creator of HBO's "Lovecraft Country," as in H.P.
This week brings "Weird City," a comical sci-fi series co-created with "Key & Peele" writer Charlie Sanders, with Jose Molina, from "The Tick" and "Marvel's Agent Carter," as showrunner. Premiering Wednesday on YouTube Premium, it's only six episodes long — not, in purely chronological terms, the strongest argument for subscribing to another premium streaming service, especially one whose business model was built on giving you stuff for free. But what it lacks in mass it makes up in energy, wit and taking care to look good.
The first and last episodes were made available for review. The show is an anthology, but the episodes share a world — a city where, according to introductory titles "The Haves Live Above the Line, the Have-Nots, Below. ("Like, literally, they built a barrier between themselves called 'the Line.'") It's a microcosm and a metaphor, a backdrop burg like Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio," or "SCTV's" Melonville.
There are obscure links and repetitions; characters in the first episode discuss a television show, an action series called “Below: Glail & Charlota,” within which the sixth episode takes place. A "commercial" during that show advertises an album by the fictional Hobo Railroad Project ("Nobody asked for it, you got it"), which includes a song called "The Ballad of Dylan & Ed," referring to the actors, Dylan O'Brien and Ed O'Neill, who play the characters discussing that show in the first episode.
The city or nation divided into discrete zones is a familiar gambit in sci-fi and fantasy fiction. But since the Have-Nots include pretty much everyone who isn't actually wealthy, life Below the Line is not the gang-ruled, fire-in-a-trash-can dystopia we often get, but a life most people would recognize as normal, whatever cultural shame attends to it. As for the upper classes, rules and regulations are the price of their supposed freedom. (This is not a new idea, either — the king as prisoner of his crown.)
In a notion that might have served Kurt Vonnegut well, expressions of trendiness and high status are backed by the power of the data-driven state. (Levar Burton, who recurs, is the city’s “prize scientist” and Oz figure.) Among the Haves, marriages are arranged at birth. A restaurant becomes literally required dining. The idea of "must see" television is made literal. The season finale of "Below: Glail & Charlota," which is also the season finale of "Weird City” — both of which star Awkwafina and Yvette Nicole Brown — is television "that you don't want to miss, that you legally can't miss, that you currently aren't missing.”
The opening episode, in which a supposedly infallible dating service improbably (yet happily) connects two heterosexual men of far different generations (O'Brien and O'Neill), opposes for the zillionth time individual desire against the will of the corporate city-state; the closing episode plays with metafictional ideas that go back to “Tristram Shandy” and Ionesco, and forward through more than one “Twilight Zone” episode, that “Saturday Night Live” sketch where “Star Trek” is canceled out from under the characters and the "Bandersnatch" episode of “Black Mirror,” which might be described as a less funny version of "Weird City," and therefore (to my mind), a less good one. The work of Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry may reasonably spring to mind.
The dialogue takes nicely absurd swings, as when a man approaching a group in a bar in the first episode says, "Sorry to interrupt, but I was eavesdropping," or Stu, the character played by O'Brien in the opening episode signs up to find his match at The One That's The One.
Interviewer: "What is your favorite number."
Stu: "Three. No — eight."
"It's OK — the questions can be a little awkward. Just answer honestly. What is your favorite number."
Having seen the alpha and omega of the series, I'm eager to see the gamma, delta, epsilon and phi, or whichever intermediate Greek letters you want to represent those four other episodes. (The announced cast includes Mark Hamill, Michael Cera, Sara Gilbert, Hannah Simone, Steven Yeun and Gillian Jacobs.) Even when “Weird City” runs over old sci-fi ground, which science fiction does all the time, it is does so trippingly, at a skip. Exuberant and even sunny, it’s tricked up with productive details and design, with small verbal and visual jokes you can't call throwaway because all are there to build a world — a world, of course, that looks a lot like ours. To paraphrase “Pogo,” we have met dystopia, and it is us.
Where: YouTube Premium
When: Any time, starting Wed., Feb. 13