The signifiers of upper middle class, white male midlife crisis have shifted across the past few generations with a lava-slow determination, time and culture churning on itself and ossifying into a whole new level of hell. Boomers who bought fast cars and unexpectedly took up squash or long-distance running evolved into a current crop of listless Gen X dudes navigating a sort of technological limbo—bumbling dickishly between the strange, obligatory ennui that was prescribed (perhaps erroneously) to their generation, and the strange, obligatory narcissism that is prescribed, definitely erroneously, to this one.
It’s in this uncomfortable fissure where Flaked resides, wry drama trying half-heartedly to be a comedy in the spirit of ‘00s mumblecore. In the Netflix series, Will Arnett plays a chiseled but meandering recovering alcoholic by the name of Chip, who spends his days in Venice, California, posing as a sort of AA guru who secretly sneaks sips of wine from a sports jug marked “Kombucha.”
Because of a drunk driving incident that ended in the death of a young boy, Chip’s only mode of transportation is a bike with a wooden box on its bow, a fact that is meant as a reminder of his life burden, but which also serves to amplify his breezy beach lifestyle. He makes up for his somewhat tragic life by attracting women two decades his junior, tanned beach babes whose wardrobes consist primarily of bikinis and who inexplicably flock to him despite his unmooring, and despite the fact that he is predisposed to treating them like shit. In this sense, the show is aspirational, the sustained fantasy of a man in middle age who lost his young because it was just that, but who seeks to suspend time by substituting youth with irresponsibility. Heather Graham plays Tilly, Chip’s glamorous and wealthy ex-wife, a successful television actress; the sense of loss and bitterness surrounding her recalls Kristen Bell’s character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and it’s also hard not to imagine Amy Poehler, a successful television actress who happens to be Arnett’s ex-wife. (Arnett co-created and co-wrote every episode with Mark Chappell.) Even Chip’s best friend, a pushover named Dennis (David Sullivan) who lets Chip live in his mom’s crib while he resides in the guest house, thinks he’s a dick, though there’s a slight arc in which Dennis starts to value his own worth over Chip’s.
The arc, though, is very, very slight—the main problem with Flaked is that it’s aware of the fact that having no plot is a shortcoming, but it also (maybe?) believes it can get by on the strength of its characters. Other than Cooler, an ‘80s style SoCal stoner played by a very funny George Basil, it cannot; the central question it provokes is when, in God’s name, will Hollywood stop making these sorts of films that pedestalize the fuck-up white male and his tragic plight? And maybe the answer is, when millennials start gaining more control over Hollywood, as this kind of lost-white-person niche is a holdover from the indie films of the ‘90s. (Even Girls, created by and starring a bunch of millennials, feels deeply Gen X in its upper middle class concerns; Flaked could just as easily have been named Men.)
Towards the end of the first season, it seemed like Chip was headed for reform, as he gradually began to accept the fact that he was being an asshole and atone for it. But by the final episode, we learn that most of his main problems are in fact the fault of the women in his life—of course!—and, somehow even worse, he ends up delivering a monologue that actually advocates for the gentrification of his community at the hands of an asshole tech guy played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin playing a character, yet again, that is basically McLovin). Of course we’re supposed to be reminded that a dick is a dick is a dick, but the tenor of Flaked also suggests that maybe being a dick isn’t so bad, especially if you end up with the girl in the end.
Yet despite all of this, I found myself somewhat mesmerized by Flaked—not for its script nor for its characters, but for the way it portrays Southern California as a kind of friendly utopia of chill vibes and everyone has time to eat salads in the backyard gardens of cute restaurants, where they work on their tans. (Virtually everyone on this show is white, and CHRIST, Will Arnett is tan in this show.) The sunlight seems to be in a perpetual state of afternoon—a sort of perfect tea-warm temperature that can seem impossibly magical to a New Yorker—but like Chip, the key word here is impossible. The magic is the ruse, and in midlife crisis the youth is the magic, a false platform that gives when you trigger it, for the purpose of disappearing yourself into it.
Getting older can be a quagmire if you don’t steel yourself, mentally; it’s worse if you bring to it a sense of regret. Reading about male midlife crisis is a somewhat dreadful undertaking, particularly as a woman encountering men coping with it on a fairly regular basis. (I would guess my male friend group ranges from age 19 to about 45.) This paragraph, for instance, from Harold Cohen Ph.D, writing at Psych Central:
Some men have not made peace with personal issues such as their dependency needs, doubts about their masculinity, unrealistic ambitions and anxieties about being a family provider. Some even feel like “impostors,” expecting to be unmasked at any moment. Others avoid or delay “growing up,” as if being a child is the only way one can be truly happy and satisfied.
The concept of “midlife crisis” was in dispute across the field of psychology for years, and for a decade experts wondered if they were studying the wrong parameters—focusing on what sufferers don’t have, rather than what they do. A study published by the Royal Economic Society late last year, however, monitored 50,000 people through their life cycle and found most were least happy in their early 40s, the era when popular culture tells us we become restless and dissatisfied. The study did not offer specific analysis as to why, but it ventured an educated guess:
“Childhood and old age are protected times of life to a degree,” he said. “In old age you are funded or you have funded it. It’s the same for a child. You are looked after at both ends of life and your responsibilities are fewer.
“The burdens of life fall on the middle-aged. You are looking after your children, your parents, yourselves. You are working as you will probably never work again in older age and probably harder than you did when you were younger. You are also having to be on call a lot, time wise, so your days are long and your purse is stretched. This is almost universally the case, regardless of whether you live in Venezuela or England.”
This makes sense, and none of it applies to any of the characters in Flaked. Midlife crisis, at least in Hollywood, is what you make of it—and once again, the most important player in this game is a mopey dude.
Image via screenshot/Netflix.