March 18, 2022 9:15 AM EDT

Amy Schumer is reclaiming the spotlight. The rare female comedian to land on Hollywood’s A-list, she dominated the mid-2010s with the groundbreaking sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, a string of hit movies, and a best-selling memoir. Yet the past few years have been relatively quiet for Schumer, as the self-deprecating feminist comedy that fueled her rise has become ubiquitous enough to feel tame. Can she recapture the zeitgeist? One big test will be her Oscars co-hosting gig, with Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes, later this month. But first, on March 18, she’ll unveil Life & Beth, a Hulu dramedy that she created, stars in, and helped write and direct.

The show’s premise, like its title, is both indistinct and somewhat trite. Fast approaching 40, Schumer’s Beth has managed to create a pretty nice life for herself. She works at a wine company, alongside her cute superstar-salesman boyfriend, Matt (Kevin Kane), with whom she shares a Manhattan apartment. To her high school friends in Long Island, who refer to “the city” in tones of hushed reverence, this is what success looks like. But she isn’t really happy. Beth’s family is no help: her mom (Laura Benanti) has no boundaries; her dad (Michael Rapaport) is, for all practical purposes, out of the picture; and she only calls her angry younger sister, Ann (Susannah Flood), when she wants to complain about them.

It takes an unanticipated tragedy for Beth to stop sleepwalking and start reconsidering who she is and what she wants out of life. Back in her childhood home, she dips into diaries that reveal a kid marinating in the shame of her parents’ divorce, the family’s money problems, and her own developing body. Schumer tells these stories through extensive flashbacks, drawing parallels between young Beth’s (Violet Young) humiliations and grownup Beth’s suppressed emotions. Meanwhile, work brings her to a vineyard where she meets a disarmingly direct farmer named John (a patchily bearded Michael Cera).

Amy Schumer, left, and Violet Young in 'Life & Beth'
Marcus Price/Hulu

Life & Beth isn’t a catastrophe. There are scenes that would’ve made clever Inside sketches; in one, an MRI tech plays DJ for his captive audience. Benanti and Rapaport make convincingly chaotic parents. Cera gives us a different kind of rom-com lead.

But unlike the best shows that took up Inside’s mantle, such as Fleabag and Hacks, it suffers from a lack of purpose. That’s not to say it sets its stakes too low. Some of the best series on TV are slice-of-life programs about women navigating middle age, from Better Things to Work in Progress to Somebody Somewhere (starring Schumer’s friend Bridget Everett). What’s missing, here, is a unifying sensibility. The inconsistencies are glaring. Life & Beth’s tone lurches from realistic to absurd and back; relatively normal characters suddenly devolve into off-the-wall caricatures. Flashbacks framed as life-altering ordeals often read as normal teen baggage—a particular problem at a time when TV is saturated with parallel timelines and trauma plots. The pieces just don’t add up to a satisfying whole.

Too often in the age of content churn, series go into production with undercooked premises and scripts crying out for another—if not a first—round of revisions. Maybe that’s because pay-TV execs think a famous face like Schumer’s (or Steve Carell’s in Space Force, or Nicole Kidman’s in The Undoing) will be sufficient to attract subscribers. A lot of the time, they’re right. It’s a shame, though, that as shows with star power behind them proliferate, shows that play like complete statements get harder to find.

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