Unstable review – this Rob Lowe nepo-sitcom is staggeringly joke-free
The actor stars alongside his son (playing his son) in a nauseatingly schmaltzy, second-tier comedy. It’s utterly unfunny, but at least its lead is as charming as ever
Rob Lowe as Ellis in Unstable. Photograph: John P Fleenor/Netflix
That the name of the eccentric biotech-genius-entrepreneur protagonist of Unstable is Ellis Dragon tells you everything you need to know about this Netflix comedy series. It knows it is supposed to be funny – it is absolutely committed to being so – and yet every effort just misses.
Ellis is played by Rob Lowe. Slightly more rumpled than he was in The West Wing, slightly less chiselled than he was in St Elmo’s Fire, but still dependably Rob Lowe – quick, charming and accomplished at selling the hell out of anything he finds himself in, which is the most valuable of his assets here.
A natural chaos demon, Ellis has become ungovernable since the sudden death of his beloved wife of three decades. Deadlines on a carbon-capture project, upon which his survival as the head of the bioengineering company he founded depends, have come and gone. A pivotal board meeting is looming.
Therapy from the company shrink does not appear to have helped. His chief financial officer, Anna (Fleabag’s Sian Clifford, doing her best despite being miscast and stuck with weak material), has resorted to plain speaking to try to arrest his and the company’s decline.
“You’re getting crazier,” she tells her boss.
“Or am I just letting the beauty of the world move me in a more profound way?” he says, winningly.
“That’s literally the same thing,” she replies.
In desperation she calls his son, Jackson, in New York. Get this: Jackson is the opposite of his father in every way! Quiet, unmaterialistic, focused and happy to have pursued life as a flute teacher after graduating in science stuff from Harvard. Also, he is played by Lowe’s son, John Owen Lowe.
Jackson agrees to visit his dear old dad for 24 hours, to see what he can do. But when Jackson arrives, his dad can’t help criticising his life choices and trying to change him into a version of himself. Oh, typical father-son dynamic, when will you learn?!
Because this is a second-tier US sitcom, the criticism is never severe or wounding – or, as you might put it, funny. Everything comes from a place of love. Every episode ends with some hugging, some learning and a piece of symbolism painfully set up over the preceding half an hour to tie everything together. Jackson does take part in his father’s karaoke party – but on his own terms, by playing the flute! Ellis starts to recognise Jackson as his own man by bringing him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the peanut butter, just the way he likes it! But Jackson adds some of his late mom’s homemade peanut butter anyway, to acknowledge that they have this loss in common. Or something. I was busy being sick in a bucket by this point.
Unstable gets by – just about – on two things. One is the Lowes’ charm and the fact that Jr doesn’t come off too badly in the inevitable comparisons between him and Sr in the acting or the comedy stakes. A crisis of nepotism-embarrassment is averted.
The other is that the peripheral characters are a few degrees better than expected. There is a pair of female scientists nerds, Ruby (Emma Ferreira) and Luna (Rachel Marsh), who spark nicely and are given a little more to do than simply provide potential love interests for Jackson (although they are that too).
Aaron Branch delivers some extra goods as Malcolm, a childhood friend of Jackson who hero-worships and now works for Ellis. There is also Fred Armisen as the company psychiatrist, Leslie, who goes missing – in fact, he is being held hostage by Ellis after trying to blackmail the billionaire. The power of Ellis is such, however, that they end up friends; Leslie is soon another acolyte, playing pool and having dinner and movie nights with the boss before agreeing to be released. “Promise me you’ll watch Fargo,” says Ellis as they hug goodbye. “And also Osage County.”
That is one of the better lines, but overall the ratio of jokes to things that resemble jokes in structure and rhythm remains too low and the schmaltz factor too high. It’s a harmless way to spend half an hour, but Silicon Valley did the tech stuff much, much better and – along with most other sitcoms – the comedy stuff, too.