Flaked is a Netflix original series starring Will Arnett as an alcoholic who is (supposedly) in recovery, attending AA meetings, living in LA's Venice Beach, dating women, negotiating bromances, and basically getting into predictable upper-middle-class shenanigans. He’s constantly suffering first-world problems and has an endless supply of money from who-knows-where, infinite good luck, and unlimited forgiveness from those around him. He burns people but always gets a second and third and fourth and 100th chance.
I’ll Skip The Plot Details And Move Right To Thematic Content
If you're expecting a live-action BoJack Horseman from the series (as I was), you will find a weak and tonally uneven approximation. Like BoJack, #WillArnett’s character Chip is a semi-functioning, semi-dysfunctional alcoholic who is ambiguously sympathetic, alternately eliciting the audience’s compassion and scorn. The series is full of twists and turns that call into question whether Chip is inherently good but unfortunate, or inherently sociopathic and stretching his luck.
Unlike Bojack, however, Flaked is much less successful at combining humor and despair into a successful traumedy. The humor is tepid and the drama is generally maudlin and overacted. The series appears to be a personal project of Arnett and its creator Mark Chappell which, according to The Hollywood Reporter, includes inside jokes, obvious metaphors, and esoteric references to Venice Beach — elements that perhaps ordinary viewers from outside the area won’t appreciate.
Apparently Flaked is an example of a new genre called prestige humor, which combines certain distinguishing features to signal that the show is high status and suitable for a cultured audience. This includes obvious things, like narrative sophistication and high-quality production, as well as more subtle hallmarks, according to Vulture, like “winking self-awareness,” convoluted plot twists and constantly shifting moods.
Flaked has all of this, along with the prototypical everyman, i.e., a sad, middle-aged dude (Arnett), constantly pursuing heterosexual romance and/or sex and typically treating women relatively badly, while sorting out trivial problems that take on grand proportions in his own mind.
Bojack has all these hallmarks, too, but the humor is funnier and the drama is sadder, so the prestige signifiers blend more seamlessly into the narrative arc and are less obvious and artificial.
On top of the prestige #comedy signifiers, Flaked also represents a prestige lifestyle, featuring an entourage of unbelievable rich people who support their decadent lifestyles on dubious and mysterious sources of income, together with spontaneous philanthropy and luck. Chip owns a furniture store that sells only three-legged stools — though it turns out he inherited the property from his former father-in-law. His best friend Dennis owns a house and guesthouse, though as an alcoholic wine seller he never seems to be working.
Chip's girlfriend London somehow rents an apartment on a server’s income. And his friend Cooler owns a house on the non-income of an amateur stand-up comic who doesn’t tell jokes. The characters are periodically homeless but always find new sources of money right away. Maybe this can be interpreted as a reification of white privilege, since almost all the characters are white and rich, even though they are all underemployed and/or unemployed. This probably wasn’t Arnett’s intention, but it’s the impression conveyed by the series.
It’s difficult to sympathize with characters’ problems when you know they’ll always land on their feet. But Arnett probably couldn’t resist writing his own superabundant financial security into the script.
Another ambiguity in the series is whether the spiritual clichés are well-intentioned or transparent bullshit. Chip is a self-professed alcoholic self-help guru who is full of platitudes, both from AA and other, unnamed sources. In the second season he has a tense confrontation with another self-help guru, Karel, who is "mentoring" London and peddling a doctrine of mindfulness and forgetting the past. (Unsurprisingly, he seems to make good money from this business).
Unlike Chip, Karel never breaks character, toeing the line of spiritual enlightenment. It’s ambiguous whether either Chip or Karel are serious about their spiritual bromides, or whether they’re selling them for status, sex and profit. This question is never resolved, as both characters remain largely shrouded in mystery. Either way, the treacly spiritualism is bound to cloy the secular viewer.
Perhaps the spiritual references are a comment on how effective AA’s platitudes and formulaic procedures surprisingly are for some people, or perhaps they’re another noncommittal witticism.
What I like about the series is exactly what I like about BoJack Horseman: It depicts the ups and downs of struggling with addiction and psychological issues. I don’t know if Chip is mentally ill, but he seems to be a pathological liar and a fair-weather friend. The show can be construed not so much as a traumedy but as a genre-bending detective story representing the perspective of the friend or family member of the alcoholic in denial.
I see both Chip and BoJack as inherently unreliable charters who disappoint everyone around them for as long as they fail to commit to sobriety, since their alcoholism constantly clouds their judgment. Trying to determine whether Chip is a reliable friend (and/or genuinely in recovery) is just as difficult for the viewer as it can be for someone who is optimistically hoping that her loved one is really sober. The most charitable way of interpreting the series, I think, is as depicting the perspective of the friend or family member of the recovering (but struggling) addict.
There is a striking parallel between two climactic scenes in Flaked and BoJack Horseman, where the protagonists are held pointedly accountable by their respective best friends. Reflecting on Chip’s long history of lying and manipulation, Dennis asks, accusingly, “Do you drink because you lie, or do you lie because you drink?” The implication is that it is unclear, to anyone, whether Chip’s real problem is his alcoholism or his personality, or even if, at this stage of his life, the two variables can be disentangled. Similarly, BoJack’s best friend Todd confronts BoJack at the end of Season 3:
"BoJack, stop. You are all the things that are wrong with you! It's not the alcohol, or the drugs, or any of the shitty things that happened in your career, or when you were a kid! It's you! Alright? It's you.”
The second confrontation is more convincing because the characters of the BoJack universe are better developed and more robust, but the isomorphism between the two scenes is notable.
Another redeeming quality of Flaked (as well as BoJack) is that it can be seen, on a charitable interpretation, as an existentialist manifesto or a sort of theater of the absurd. On this hermeneutical, it doesn’t matter that riches fall from the sky or that we can’t tell whether the characters are telling a joke or being serious, giving heartfelt spiritual advice or exploiting someone for personal gain. We can never really know anyone and nothing ultimately makes sense in the real world, either.
Existence precedes essence, as philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre is reputed to have said, and the belief that anyone has a stable self is a myth. Maybe all of our interpretive schemes and conceptual frameworks are just comfortable illusions. The fact that Dennis is an alcoholic wine seller and Cooler is a "comedian who doesn’t tell jokes" might not be a schtick so much as a commentary on the absurdity of life. This interpretation is a stretch, but if you want to put a positive gloss on the series, I think it’s the best way to go.
I wouldn’t have watched two seasons of Flaked if it didn’t have saving graces and I do enjoy Arnett’s acting, so while I don’t quite recommend the show, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from watching it either.
Flaked, seasons 1 and 2, are streaming now on Netflix.