Weird City, Charlie Sanders and Jordan Peele’s satirical sci-fi anthology about a “not too distant future” in which an unnamed metropolis has split itself in two, the Haves living Above the Line and the Have-Nots living Below (“Like, literally, they built a barrier between themselves called ‘The Line,’” a title card informs us), comprises just six episodes. These six episodes feature one-off guest turns from Awkwafina, Malcolm Barrett, Yvette Nicole Brown, LeVar Burton, Michael Cera, Auli’i Cravalho, Eugene Cordero, Laverne Cox, Rosario Dawson, Sara Gilbert, Mark Hamill, Trevor Jackson, Gillian Jacobs, Hannah Simone, Dylan O’Brien, Ed O’Neill, Matt Walsh and Steven Yeun. In six episodes. Six short episodes.
The stories these guest stars get caught up in vary wildly, but whether they’re contending with the busted algorithm of Burton’s The One That’s The One dating program, stealing an Above the Line delivery van to go on a child-”rescuing” safari in the middle-class slums Below the Line, or slowly becoming conscious of the harrowing fact that they’re characters in the finale of a premium-cable action series, the one thing performances all have in common is that they’re impossible to watch without seeing The Actor(s) first, and whatever character(s) they’re playing second (or, too easily, not at all).
From a critical standpoint, there are two ways to read this fact: Either Sanders and Peele are whizz auteurs using the loaded familiarity of real-world celebrity to add metatextual layers to their skewering of (anti-) social technology, America’s particularly #brand-happy flavor of socioeconomic elitism, and base human nature… or, they’re just unlucky enough that the impressively sprawling, of-the-moment cast of Weird City is hitting the (Internet) airwaves at the very moment that the blank check audiences have given other auteurs to stunt-cast their Big Television Projects has finally run out.
Immediately after finishing the episodes made available for review, my gut feeling was that the correct interpretation was the latter. Not to cast aspersions on their skills as actors, but in their roles as mistakenly matched ones-that-are-the-ones in the series premiere, Dylan O’Brien and Ed O’Neill are so distractingly Dylan O’Brien and Ed O’Neill that the real emotional warmth one might want to see in their story never fully materializes. Similarly impossible to parse is an episode about the trend-based one-upmanship corroding Gillian Jacobs, Malcolm Barrett, Hannah Simone and Steve Yeun’s Above-the-Line friend group. By the end of the episode, all four characters reach what is, apparently, an emotional breaking point brought on by the excesses of Above-the-Line trend-chasing, but the characterizations are so extremely shallow, and Jacobs, Barrett, Simone and Yuen all so eminently recognizable as themselves (or, at least, as the roles they played in each of their pop culture-defining franchises), that the the situational comedy they’re stuck in is only funny because it’s Steve Yeun obsessively toting around a melon in a sling, and Gillian Jacobs expressing ignorance over whether or not the dragons portrayed in Above-the-Line TV shows about life Below the Line are real or metaphorical. (She is fairly certain they’re metaphorical.)
Is my mind meant to be blown by the suggestion that we are basically one technological development away from virtually drugging ourselves into a deadening kind of streaming media isolation? Am I supposed to feel scales fall from my eyes at the revelation that wealth and material gluttony physically limit one’s ability to conceive of less wealthy ways of living as valuable in their own right, or of people poorer than oneself as as equally human? If so, New Girl’s Cece kidnapping a random kid from his own living room in a Below-the-Line “slum” in order to “gift” him with the wonders of all the loneliness money can buy is… not gonna cut it. To the kind of savvy TV watcher it’s clear Weird City is hoping to attract, it borders on insulting.
Which, ironically, is what has me reconsidering my initial “This stunt casting business is out of control” reading of Weird City. Peele and Sanders (one of Key & Peele’s stable of writers) not only don’t have a history of insulting their audiences, they have a history of taking even the most savvy of audiences’ deeply considered senses of self and society and using them as cudgels to shatter dangerously entrenched assumptions we might otherwise have neglected to question. So, maybe the stunt casting here is… the cudgel?
Once I started considering this angle, evidence to support it started flashing neon out of every episode. The characters in the kidnapping story are named Phephanie, Barsley, Mulia and Chonathon—of course they’re shallowly written and impossible to hang on to beyond the actors playing them; we are meant to be disgusted by their base broadness, and indict our own worst trend-chasing impulses in the process. O’Brien and O’Neill’s characters, meanwhile—Stu and Burt, respectively—are meant to feel real, but the inability to set aside our recognition of the two actors and just let their The One That’s the One story play out enriches the episode’s thesis that depending too much on expectations can be an obstacle to finding happiness. This isn’t a groundbreaking thought! But having to push through the more cognitive dissonance of seeing the actors before their characters at the same time that those characters are pushing through the cognitive dissonance of what they think they see in each other is a pretty sly way of getting at it.
The most compelling case for the “This stunt casting business may have a point” argument comes in “Below: Glail and Charlotta,” the shortest of the episodes made available for review—an extra-meta oddball of a story that clocks in at just under 18 minutes and serves as the anthology’s finale. “Below: Glail and Charlotta” is formatted as the season finale an the Above- the-Line prestige TV series, Below: Glail and Charlotta and features Yvette Nicole Brown as Yvette Nicole Brown as Glail, and Awkwafina as Awkwafina as Charlotta, the co-leads of Below: Glail and Charlotta, who gradually become conscious of their existence as fictional TV characters and who then spend the rest of the episode trying (and failing) to exert free will. Apologies for the mindfuck of that description, but that mindfuckery is key to understanding how seeing Brown and Awkwafina as so utterly themselves in these roles is itself key to understanding Sanders and Peele’s approach to the whole Weird City project. We are what entertains us, even (or especially) when it threatens to destroy our sense of self.
So, OK: I changed my mind. Stunt casting, when deployed not out of self-indulgence but to support an artistic vision, is cool. Unsubtle as hell, in the case of Weird City—like a mallet to the id, honestly—but cool. And considering where we are in 2019, maybe a mallet to the id is what many of us need.
Weird City is now streaming on YouTube Premium.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.