As Arthur Banks, a playwright/director mining his own romantic misadventures for material, Adam Goldberg is a mashup of Woody Allen self-consciously whining in Manhattan and Marcello Mastroianni swanning around in La Dolce Vita or 8 ½ - it’s a totally unlikely and terrific combination. Most web series sound more promising than they turn out to be, but AMC’s stylish, wry The Trivial Pursuits of Arthur Banks -- shot in black-and-white, set in a vaguely retro time - is a smart exception to the frat-boys-rule-the-world mentality that still shapes so much of the genre.
The immensely flawed title character – hero is really too kind a word – is a lothario who moans to his therapist about the problems with his love life. He might call them problems; we see them as self-inflicted wounds resulting from colossal egotism and bad judgment.
We watch as he lives out these events, then briefly see them acted on stage – a ploy that could lead to something brilliant or dreadful, but here becomes a sly homage to old movies.
Arthur is more Woody as Isaac than dashing Marcello. And speaking of Isaac’s too-young love, we first see Arthur waking up next to a woman whose heart-shaped Lolita sunglasses offer a clue to her age. How young does she look in daylight? Arthur flees, calls his shrink (played by Jeffrey Tambor) and says, “I think I pulled a Polanski.”
He makes that call from an outdoor pay phone, not the only anachronism in this deliberately timeless setting. Beyond the rich black and white, the style screams retro - from Arthur’s suit and tie to the 60’s feel of the theme music – and fits smoothly into AMC’s Mad Men mania. Arthur’s best friend actually places a personal ad in the classified section of a newspaper; no iPads or laptops in sight. Yet no verbal clues set the story down in a precise earlier period.
That fuzziness would become annoying in a longer work, but it glides by in these three episodes. Each is a bit under 15 minutes and each has a different woman at its center. There’s too-young Chloe, whom Arthur cheats on his live-in-girlfriend; there’s the actress who plays the girlfriend on stage, then becomes Arthur’s girlfriend. When she gets laryngitis, Arthur sees this as a good thing for the relationship.
If Woody Allen’s influence wasn’t clear in the black and white, it would be in the voice-over that comments on Arthur, and the arty-intelligentsia label the therapist hands him: he’s a “latent existentialist.”
Therapists are a favorite fallback of web series, from Don Roos and Lisa Kudrow’s dazzling Web Therapy to Crackle.com’s less sharp Issues, in which animated superheroes interact with a live actor playing the shrink. Are all these creators analysands or are shrink scenes just cheap to shoot? Either way, the therapist here does nothing the voiceover couldn’t, except - and this may be the point – be as droll and goofy-looking as Tambor makes him.
Created and directed by Peter Glanz, whose shorts have been at the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals, this is the first series from AMC Digital Studios, co-released on Hulu. The plan is to use the web format partly to develop longer works, but the padded version of Web Therapy on Showtime lets us see that longer isn’t necessarily better. Short and sly, Arthur Banks works just the way it is.