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Amy Schumer branches out (but retains her hell-raising spirit) in 'Life & Beth'

Amy Schumer stars as a woman on a voyage of self discovery in Hulu's <em>Life & Beth.</em>
Marcus Price
Amy Schumer stars as a woman on a voyage of self discovery in Hulu's Life & Beth.

With really brilliant comedians, there's nearly always a moment when they want to stop being only funny, to move beyond gags and skits, and seek out new emotional, thematic or stylistic territory. Sometimes this turns out magnificently, as when Charlie Chaplinbegan making feature films far richer than his comic shorts; with others, the results can be downright embarrassing. Think of Woody Allen's ghastly attempts to be Ingmar Bergman.

But such are the perils of ambition, and I admire those willing to risk them. Take one of my favorites, Amy Schumer. Her series Inside Any Schumer was one of the indispensable shows of the last decade: a hilarious, raunchy, take-no-prisoners program with a steely feminist core.

Yet rather than keep making that series forever, she pushed herself in new directions — writing and starring in the hit film Trainwreck, braving dramatic movie roles, even doing a cooking show with her husband. Now, she's created and stars in an enjoyable new Hulu series, Life & Beth, about a woman in her late 30s trying to get back in touch with who she really is.

Schumer plays Beth Jones, a hard-drinking wine rep in New York who doesn't really like her job or her gung-ho jerk of a boyfriend. Then something happens that shakes her like a personal earthquake. Deciding to stop being, as she puts it, "the passive passenger in the car of her life," she begins a voyage of self-discovery.

This takes her home to the Long Island boonies and into flashback memories of the teenage Beth who had to deal with the difficult mother she resented — that's Laura Benanti — and the feckless father she adored, winningly played by Michael Rapaport. Back then, the one truly happy thing in Beth's life was playing volleyball.

Over the course of 10 episodes, Beth has all manner of mini-adventures. She goes to bars and funerals and farmers markets. She makes dirty jokes with her friends — many of them funny — and goes boating while high on mushrooms. She gets involved with a dim, hunky trainer, played by Jonathan Groff, and a socially awkward farmer named John, played with a charming dryness by Michael Cera.

Now, as much as I liked watching Life & Beth, it's quite uneven. Beth's story starts a tad slowly and its many tones never quite mesh. I kept thinking Schumer is trying to weave together two different strands of groundbreaking women's television. One is the strand that includes Fleabagand Somebody, Somewhere, whose heroines grapple with the past in order to move into the future. The other is found in Girlsand Better Things, which are looser in form, and built less around a clear, overarching narrative than around capturing privileged moments and scenes that often don't add up to anything bigger — and don't need to.

I must admit that I never got fully invested in the grand arc of Beth's attempts to let the past go. Schumer's performance is plenty good — her acting keeps getting deeper — yet the whole healing narrative, complete with new boyfriend, feels tame and formulaic, especially coming from someone as original as Schumer. Beth's story lacks the emotional and verbal pop of Fleabag or the deep-body pain of Somebody, Somewhere, whose heroine's wounds feel much more profound than Beth's.

The show's at its strongest when it's less on point, giving free range to Schumer's capacity for catching life on the wing — a spiky scene involving the Plan B morning-after pill, funny sex talk with a Black girlfriend who now chases white Jewish men, sardonic banter with her equally-screwed-up sister, an explosion of post-coital rage at John, a lovely scene of Beth's dad teaching his daughters to eat oysters — not to mention all manner of good lines. "Do you have any preexisting conditions?" a doctor asks her before an MRI, and Beth replies, "I'm a woman."

Of course, one great danger of cutting-edge comics expanding their range is that they can wind up having their ferocious brilliance smothered by safely conventional material, as happened to Richard Pryor, a certified genius who literally wound up playing a toy. Happily, Schumer escapes that fate in Life & Beth. Although the cornball punniness of its title may give you pause, the show's best moments prove that, inside Amy Schumer, the hell-raising spirit lives on.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.