Art is wonderful. Show business is a fucking nightmare.
Sunset Boulevard knew this. So did Barton Fink. The Player, Tropic Thunder, Birdman, they all knew this. Bo Burnham really knows this. And 555, the new Vimeo anthology web series from comedians John Early and Kate Berlant, understands this, too. But unlike those other examples, 555 doesn’t seem to be interested in any kind of redemptive arc for its characters. There isn’t a “love letter” to Hollywood buried in a critique of its worst instincts—the way there is in, say, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. There is no silver lining in the world they’ve created here. If that sounds cynical or exhausting, it’s not. In fact, it’s the most refreshing comedy-anything I’ve seen in a long, long time.
The gist is this; each twelve-minute episode features Berlant and Early as two characters crouched in some dark corner of the pursuit of fame: two wannabe popstars; an obnoxious stage mother and her illiterate son; a pair of pretentious acting students (“If you give all of yourself; your head, your heart, your mind, your soul, your spirit, you are indirectly addressing climate change”); and competitive extras on some kind of science-fiction film. Each outing straddles the line between a longer sketch and particularly silly short film.
Early and Berlant were behind the two best episodes of Netflix’s The Characters, and both have made for spectacular quasi-antagonists elsewhere. (Elliot, the compulsive liar on Search Party, is one of Early’s most memorable recent credits). 555 ups that ante. There is some visible guidance from executive producers Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, but they seem to know they’ll get the most out of 555 by allowing Early and Berlant, who created the series along with director Andrew DeYoung, to do whatever they want. The result is the culmination of that behavioral specificity Berlant and Early have trafficked in for years. DeYoung’s direction is equally magnificent, delicately holding silences before letting his stars talk their way into deep holes with no exit strategy. The steam-filled, wood-paneled interior of Berlant’s home in the second episode is particularly depressing, but provides the perfect backdrop for her compulsive (mimed) smoking habit.
555 is so spot-on that it can be hard to watch at times, but I guarantee you won’t look away. By the fifth and final episode, in which they play two talent agents, Early and Berlant make light moves in the direction of tying the whole thing together. But a neat conclusion is far from their first priority, which works just fine; their true imperative seems to be to make us laugh as much as possible. Look at Early, cross-eyed, asking Berlant to “name a genre” for him to imitate on the drums. This is the rare series that does not peak in the middle—it genuinely get’s better and better as it goes along.
It’s common consensus that insofar as artistry obviously the soul, the ambition show business fosters is often a corrupting influence, the kind that makes demons out of well-intentioned people. The narrative of upward mobility that sustains those ambitions makes it so, so, so easy to hide a machiavellian lust for respect and attention behind a mirage of cooperative acting exercises—Kristen Johnston makes a memorable appearance as herself, I think, teaching a One on One-esque scene study class—and empty resolutions to start “making our own stuff.” Too easy. Which is frustrating, because we know that artistic professions attract genuine, modest people as much as they attract people who suuuuck. And obviously you can find grounded, reasonable people in a movie star’s trailer and self-centered blowhards performing at a mall somewhere, but in both cases it is in spite of a larger American Promise that rewards selfish instincts and exploits the earnest. This isn’t some top-down directive from the network suits. It’s no one person’s fault. It’s just… the system.
The best response to this is exactly what Berlant and Early, both in 555 and in their non-diegetic lives. It’s satire at its purest, assuming one point of view in order to prove the opposite. I don’t see it as shitting on the dream-landscape of the young and impressionable, but as a highly necessary wakeup call that doesn’t pull its punches. It may just make you wince at your own behavior, as it made me wince at mine, and it’s goddamn hysterical all the way through.
All five episodes of 555 are currently streaming on Vimeo for the low, low price $3.99.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.