Life & Beth season 2 review: Amy Schumer’s passion project shows signs of growing pains

Life & Beth
Life & Beth
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The very title of Life & Beth, Amy Schumer’s Hulu series that returns February 16, hints at the preoccupation with grief and mortality that anchor many of its episodes. While its first season was rightly focused on Beth (Schumer) grappling with the death of her mother (the brilliant Laura Benanti) and ended with this wayward woman finding an unlikely match in a farmer named John (Michael Cera, in full deadpan mode), these next 10 episodes broaden the show’s scope. But season two’s focus on parenthood—and specifically about how ill-equipped or outright absent parents can unendingly scar their teenage kids—remains key to what Schumer is aiming for as star, writer, and director in this close-to-home project.

When we catch up with Beth this season, she’s living a placid if perhaps all too domestic home life with John on his farm. They’ve grown all too comfortable with one another (a long take finds their morning routine as a well-choreographed dance, with him happily peeing outside while he brushes his teeth), which is both comforting and scary for Beth. Maybe a search for perfection, she tells herself, is futile. He cares for her and even when he doesn’t know how best to show it, he’s a solid partner. What’s more, he grounds her even as the rest of the people in her life (her raucous childhood friends, her embittered younger sister, her not-quite-there father, and even her deadbeat ex-boyfriend) risk making her life feel adrift and untethered.

Life & Beth

C+

C+

Life & Beth

season

2

And so, even with such doubts in her mind—fended off whenever she gets to see how much John cares for her—Beth makes the kind of decision that would make anyone else worry: The two will get married. Soon. Next week, in fact. The wedding episode (the second in the season), set in New Orleans, is a perfect encapsulation of what works and what doesn’t in Life & Beth. No matter how grounded the series attempts to be, especially when it tries to wrestle with probing ideas about how we feel about those we’ve lost and how they still haunt our everyday lives, in ways both healing and damaging, its broad comedy often gets away from itself. That’s what you get when you recruit the likes of Amy Sedaris (as a kooky wedding planner), Jennifer Coolidge (as a kooky medium), and even Big Freedia (playing themself) to color in bit supporting parts that stand in stark contrast with Beth’s grief over not having her mother at her wedding and her attempts to make sense of this boyfriend-turned-fiancé-turned-husband she’s now committed to.

Moreover, the series’ continued decision to use flashbacks to Beth’s teenage years to punctuate (sometimes all too bluntly) the present-day plots often make Life & Beth feel like two series stitched together. Not just in terms of tone—teenage Beth (played by Violet Young) is stuck in a kind of PEN15/Judy Blume narrative, while older Beth sometimes ends up in situations straight of an Inside Amy Schumer sketch or lifted wholesale from her standup routine—but in terms of how we’re supposed to see all those teenage experiences as informing how present day Beth moves through life. At a meta-level, one wishes Schumer-the-writer would leave behind these forays into immaturity and fully commit instead to the nuanced portrayals of mature relationships where the series’ strengths lie.

Schumer is clearly borrowing directly from her life and imbuing her series (and her performance) with welcome authenticity. Just as she’s talked about in her standup, a key plot point early in season two concerns Beth learning she has a hump, something that makes her own body insecurities flare up. But this is particularly clear in how she sketches Beth and John’s relationship, which is complicated in many ways. Even as it reaches for rom-com scenarios, Life & Beth insists contemporary love stories have to do away with neatly romanticized ideas and focus instead on the nitty gritty of making room for someone else’s dysfunctions in your life. But such moments of narrative candor can and do get lost amid scenes when those hilarious guest stars (including Cole Escola giving us a twist on Marie Kondo that involves the word “squirt”) stretch the show’s comedy into way-too-broad territory, often for nothing more than a quick laugh.

At its best and when it hits its stride—namely, when it manages to artfully thread its comedic sensibility with its more dramatic tenor—Life & Beth can be quite affecting. The episode when Beth and John navigate his possible A.S.D. diagnosis, for instance, shows Schumer eager to offer an authentic and nuanced portrayal of something she’s been experiencing in her own life. (As she shared in her standup special Amy Schumer Growing, her husband, Chris Fischer, is on the autism spectrum.) And here she’s aided by an unassuming but not any less entrancing performance by Michael Cera, who makes John’s prickliness feel just as off-putting as Beth finds it, yet clearly rooted in an understanding of how those on the spectrum behave.

Brimming with the raw, unfiltered humor that has characterized Amy Schumer’s comedic output over the past decade, Life & Beth makes for an enjoyable dramedy unafraid to dig into darker territory than her sketch or standup comedy ever have. If it doesn’t quite land every one of its many well-intentioned and often very funny setups, it at least hits a welcome note about how difficult it remains to live in this world and connect with one another given the baggage we all bring and carry with us every day.

Life & Beth season 2 premieres February 16 on Hulu