Recently I visited my childhood home and, as always, my mom made me go through a box of my old things to see what she could throw out. Flipping through the old journal entries, birthday cards, and school assignments, I felt so much love for my younger self, but also a certain melancholy. There were so many overwhelming emotions in the moment, so much sadness to come, and there I was, just a kid trying to figure it out. Few shows capture that heart-wrenching feeling like the new comedy-drama series from Amy Schumer, Life & Beth.
Life & Beth follows the titular Beth (Schumer) as she deals with the death of her mother Jane (Laura Benanti), goes back to her childhood home on Long Island, and reckons with both her unresolved past and uninspiring present. Beth’s a wine sales rep but doesn’t really like her job, her boyfriend hardly seems to listen to her, and she seems to be moving through life on autopilot. On Long Island, she strikes up a friendship with a terse farmer named John (Michael Cera) and revisits bittersweet, sometimes painful memories from her turbulent teenage years.
This is one of Schumer’s most personal projects to date; many aspects of the show are lifted from Schumer’s own life, including several key plot points about her teenage years (intentionally keeping this vague to avoid spoilers). Beth’s relationship with John is loosely based on Schumer’s love story with her husband, Chris Fischer. John, like his real-life counterpart, is a farmer and chef, and is coded as neurodivergent (Fischer is on the autism spectrum). “I would say it’s 50-50,” Schumer told Time Magazine regarding the balance of fact and fiction in Life & Beth.
While most of the show takes place in the present, flashbacks to Beth’s teenage years are regularly peppered into each episode. These can be a bit jarring tonally. The flashbacks tend to be serious watershed moments for young Beth (played brilliantly by Violet Young), which can come through while something comparably hilarious, even verging on cartoonish, takes place in the present. (It’s no coincidence that one of the funniest episodes, “Boat,” features very few scenes of teenage Beth.) In some ways this contrast feels true to life; you don’t get to control when the past creeps up on you. At the same time, the tonal juxtaposition can feel like emotional whiplash.
The same even happens as we go through Beth’s life as a 39-year-old. Beth’s present comes across as more laugh-out-loud funny, which makes sense considering Schumer leads a cast filled with other talented comedic actors (Yamaneika Saunders, Lavar Walker, Phil Wang, and Jon Glaser, to name a few). However, her adult struggles are dramatic in their own right, and certain jokes and performances next to these soberer scenes simply feel a bit too larger-than-life for the context. The contrast makes it harder for those weightier moments to land.
Despite these incongruities, there is so much going on in Life & Beth on an emotional level. The show explores how the hardest parts of Beth’s adolescence are tied to her parents, in particular her mother, with honesty and sensitivity. Visiting one’s childhood home means something different for everyone, but for Beth, it means realizing that her hurt, teenage self is still very much a part of her.
The show’s stacked cast deserves a shout-out as well. Cera is so endearing as John, and he and Schumer have a strange but undeniable chemistry together. Susannah Flood plays Beth’s emotionally cagey and hilarious sister, Ann, in one of the most layered performances of the series. Michael Rappaport and Benanti knock it out of the park as Beth’s flawed but loving parents. As for Schumer, she’s going out of her comfort zone here, and she does it well.
While she’s never been afraid of oversharing, we’re seeing a new side of Schumer in Life & Beth. The series may make some tonal missteps, and it certainly takes a few episodes for Life & Beth to find its footing, but the overall emotional depth and stellar performances make the comedy-drama worth a watch.
Life & Beth is now streaming on Hulu.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.