Cautionary sci-fi often warns us to be wary of powerful forces that will spell our doom. Robots will enslave us. Clones will replace us. Usually, it’s an exterior menace seeking to do us harm — in these scenarios, the human characters have to remain vigilant, lest they take their eyes off the relentless threat ready to strike at any moment. The future in these movies is always presented as being vaguely exhausting and depressing — try as we might, we can’t hold of our inevitable downfall forever.
The very uneven Living With Yourself has a lot of promise that it struggles to fulfill, but at its best, it tweaks the sci-fi formula for impending destruction. Paul Rudd’s new Netflix series starts off with a familiar premise and then goes in intriguing directions, only to lose its nerve near the end of its eight-episode first season. In it, the Ant-Man actor does double duty, playing an advertising exec in a rut as well as a happier, better clone of that man. We’ve been programmed to anticipate where this series will go, but there are some thought-provoking twists along the way. Like I said, most cautionary sci-fi argues that the threat will come from the outside — Living With Yourself suggests that, more often than not, we do ourselves in.
As the series begins, Miles (Rudd) lives in suburban New York with his architect wife Kate (Aisling Bea) in a plum house on a picket-fence street. This is a nice life, but for Miles, something’s missing. After being the star of his advertising firm for years, he’s become uninspired, and his marriage has similarly fallen into a state of bland averageness. (Their frustrated attempts to get pregnant probably aren’t helping.) But Miles gets a tip about a cutting-edge new spa that helps rejuvenate its clients, and he eagerly pays it a visit.
That’s when things get weird. Miles discovers how the spa gives people a makeover: The employees knock out the client, take his DNA, clone him and then kill the old/original version. Ideally, the clone never realizes he’s a clone and goes back to his life refreshed, none the wiser about what’s occurred. But this isn’t what happens to Miles, who wakes up in a shallow grave in the middle of the woods. Freaked out and confused, he runs home to find that a Miles clone (also Rudd, but with a nicer haircut) is there, unaware that he’s a clone. (He thinks he’s the real Miles.)
Movies such as Multiplicity and Marjorie Prime have presented clones/holograms as virtual slaves serving the whims of their masters. (In Multiplicity, Michael Keaton’s overworked character needed lookalikes to help him do everything, while Marjorie Prime imagined a future in which the living could communicate with digital replicas of their dead loved ones.) Miles and Clone Miles aren’t happy about their forced coexistence, but Miles realizes it may have its upside. Clone Miles, who seems more confident and put-together than the burned-out Miles, replaces him at the firm, wowing his coworkers with a dazzling pitch for a new client. And at home, Clone Miles is more attentive and loving to Kate than Miles had been. (However, once Clone Miles gets Kate into a romantic mood, Miles quickly switches places with him — he doesn’t want a clone sleeping with his wife.)
This could be the best of all worlds for Miles: He’s worked hard all his life, so isn’t it about time someone stepped in for him to lend a hand? All of us wish we had a personal assistant who could handle the soul-crushing and difficult parts of daily existence. Miles’ happens to look just like him.
As you might guess, Clone Miles becomes increasingly unhappy with this arrangement, especially because he has the same feelings for Kate that Miles does. (If anything, Clone Miles loves her more intensely: He has Miles’ memories but not the weight of experiences and the repetition of everyday life to blunt his affection for this wonderful woman.) Unlike in some cautionary sci-fi, Clone Miles doesn’t turn evil or murderous in Living With Yourself — this isn’t a case of the slave rebelling against its master — and that’s because, in part, Clone Miles really doesn’t need to do much to usurp Miles. All he has to do is not be Miles in all the bad ways he’s become.
It’s common for stories of this kind to pit our hero against a superior foe who wants to rise up and vanquish him. The T-800 of The Terminator hunted down Sarah Connor, while the T-1000 does the same thing to the T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There’s always a better, more advanced thing coming down the road to render you obsolete. Living With Yourself writer and creator Timothy Greenberg offers a benign version of the same setup, but there’s something more damning about his execution. Clone Miles isn’t a more advanced version of Miles — he’s simply Miles if Miles cared.
From his spiffier appearance to livelier manner, Clone Miles is more fun, more open and more positive — if you had to choose which Miles to be around, you’d pick him. And Miles knows it, complaining to Clone Miles that Kate and everyone at his job prefer the clone to the guy they’ve known for years. Clone Miles knows it, too, and while he’s not evil, he’ll happily take advantage of the situation. After all, Miles’ life is his, too: Just because he’s the clone doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a say in who gets to lay claim to it.
Despite its high-tech premise and existential musing, Living With Yourself is, at heart, a straightforward story about the dangers of checking out. The show sometimes stoops to platitudes — the moral, we’re told, is that we ought to appreciate the life we have — but it’s more cutting when it doesn’t let Miles off the hook. Rudd’s amiable, slightly dopey demeanor works well as Miles, who’s crashing into his midlife crisis gracelessly, while his Clone Miles is the more sensitive and charming Rudd — the one you don’t see when he’s palling around with the rest of the Channel 4 Anchorman news team. Miles is self-pitying, and therefore, self-defeating, too wrapped up in his minor problems to stay engaged in his own life.
But as we’ll learn, he’s not alone in that regard: Kate will eventually learn about the two Mileses, but in flashbacks, we’ll see how she, too, has started to lose her passion for life. It happens to all of us — love affairs grow routine, promising futures start to dim, the grind becomes too much — and we’re forced to settle for a series of underwhelming compromises that are good-enough. And without spoiling anything, let me just say that Clone Miles’ less-jaded qualities end up having their own disadvantages — as much as we might want a “perfect” romantic partner, what qualifies as such may shift depending on the person we are, or the person we’re becoming.
I wish Living With Yourself didn’t get so plot-y, and I wish it didn’t sacrifice depth for bizarre comedic digressions that don’t work. But at its core, there’s something deeply despairing about this series. I’ve long believed that so much of life is about showing up, but maybe even being vigilant isn’t enough to offset the bitterness, resignation and laziness that inevitably grow as we get older and more set in our ways. Miles thinks Clone Miles is his enemy — turns out, it’s the guy in the mirror, that constant disappointment looking back at us whom we can’t shake.
Here are three other takeaways from Living With Yourself… (Warning: spoilers below.)
#1. There’s a pretty fun sports cameo in the show.
When Miles initially tries the spa, called Top Happy Spa, he’s a bit reluctant. Sure, his coworker swears by the place, but it’s in a strip mall — how revolutionary could it be? But any doubts he has are quickly assuaged by the appearance of a famous figure. Yep, that’s Tom Brady walking out of Top Happy Spa, looking fit as ever. When Brady tells him it’s his sixth treatment, that clinches it for Miles: This spa must be legit.
For those who don’t speak football, this joke is funny in two ways. First, Brady (at 42) is one of the NFL’s most successful quarterbacks, demonstrating longevity unheard of in a game that regularly chews up people. Second, the guy is known for being a weirdo about health, engaging in bizarre diets, consulting a “fitness guru” and believing idiotic things like drinking water prevents sunburns. But because Brady’s New England Patriots have won six Super Bowls, he’s nonetheless treated like a scientific marvel and wellness genius. Clearly, Brady (or someone around him) figured that poking fun at his image would be a good PR move.
Longtime Patriots hater that I am, I have to give it to Brady: It’s a tiny cameo, but it’s funny. The guy may be a good-looking dope, but he has the ability to be amusing. Back in 2005, he hosted Saturday Night Live, and it’s amazing to watch how dated some of the humor of those skits is now. In one, he plays a regular dude at a carnival trying to throw footballs into a hole to win prizes. He’s terrible at it, but everybody around him — including his wife, a pregnant friend and, gasp, the two most flamboyantly gay men ever — all have no problem.
And that’s to say nothing of “Sexual Harassment and You,” a fake PSA about workplace etiquette that’s not currently embeddable. The premise of the skit: If you want to avoid being accused of sexual harassment in the office, it’s best to be attractive… like Tom Brady, who gets away with groping and other inappropriate behavior because he’s so gosh-darn good-looking. Hey, you know how chicks are!
Just about every comedic bit Brady has ever done is built around the idea that he’s Golden Boy Tom Brady, a god walking around us mere mortals. A perfect example is this Funny or Die clip where he endures a dorky chain-store employee:
Brady tends to be a bit wooden, but he’s good at looking uncomfortable. It’s something I noticed in his Living With Yourself scene as well: He smiles awkwardly, like he’s not sure how human beings do it. I think he may be a clone, too.
#2. How much suspicious stuff can you buy at Home Depot before they call the cops?
A character in Living With Yourself goes to a home-improvement store to buy several items, including duct tape, rope and a shovel. If you worked at the store, you might be tempted to think, Oh man, is this guy gonna murder someone and hide the body?
This sort of scene happens every so often — I’m thinking back to Breaking Bad — and it’s always meant to provoke a queasy laugh from the audience. How does the character act like he’s not about to do something terrible? But it made me wonder: What happens in real-life situations? Does a place like Home Depot instruct its cashiers to be on the lookout for suspicious customers buying a suspicious combination of items?
This exact question was posed on Quora, inspiring some interesting responses. A gentleman named Charles Clack mentioned that a friend of his, years ago, “bought a short length of steel pipe, and a cap for each end. The cashier thought he might be making a pipe bomb.” The dude went home to his fraternity house, and shortly thereafter, the FBI was at his door.
Another responder, Alexander Nerad, claimed, “I remember one time in college going through the checkout at Walmart with ammunition, condoms, lube, soda and auto repair/exam gloves — my friend who was with me said I should get some whipped cream and rope just to make it a really interesting order, but I was broke and didn’t need either. Another time I bought ammunition and a pick axe at the same time.”
Then there’s Suzette Alispach, who said she used to work at Home Depot, and “people would buy odd combinations of things all the time. There really was no way to tell if someone was up to no good.”
You can find similar anecdotes at Reddit and elsewhere, but what’s considered “suspicious” tends to boil down to two categories. In one, it’s folks buying items that would be used to dispose of a corpse: saws, duct tape, tarps, chemicals, etc. In the other, you’re dealing with creepy dudes buying an odd assortment of random items. One Reddit user recalled “[being] in line behind a really scruffy lookin’ guy in a dressy overcoat who bought bleach, rubber gloves, saran wrap, the biggest box of condoms, cold-sore cream, two six-packs of Red Bull and a chocolate cake. Could’ve just been that week’s list of things, but something about it just made me really uncomfortable.”
I feel you, buddy. Either way, though, it seems like, for the most part, employees probably won’t call the cops on you — but that doesn’t mean your odd purchases won’t deeply freak them out.
#3. Here’s a quick history of ‘Give It to Me Baby.’
Rick James’ 1981 hit “Give It to Me Baby” ends up being important to the plot of Living With Yourself, and it’s used in a pretty fantastic way on the show. The single comes from James’ album Street Songs, his bestselling record, which included the immortal “Super Freak.” The album was also crucial to the development of the 1980s’ biggest record, Thriller, which came out the following year.
For a while now, James fans have claimed that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” ripped off “Give It to Me Baby.” And if you listen to them mashed up together, it’s hard to dispute the accusation.
But the connections between Street Songs and Thriller run deeper. Last year, La Toya Jackson’s ex Jeffre Phillips told the New York Post’s Page Six, “Rick told me on many occasions that the song ‘Billie Jean’ was actually taken from his song ‘Ghetto Life’ from his Street Songs album. … Michael called [James] to tell him how great the album was. He was like, ‘I want to come to the studio to see how you do your thing.’ And then Thriller came out. Rick knew right away [that he stole it]. He confronted Michael about it at an awards show — and Michael just laughed and said, ‘Good to see you, Rick.’”
The comparisons aren’t as obvious between “Thriller” and “Ghetto Life,” which was also a single, but it makes for a fun side-by-side listen.
“Give It to Me Baby” and Street Sounds didn’t just influence Thriller either. The song has been sampled by everybody from Public Enemy to Jay-Z, and “Super Freak” went on to be the foundation of MC Hammer’s biggest smash, “U Can’t Touch This.” (And, of course, James’ impact wasn’t just musical — it’s a possibility that a couple generations of comedy fans know him chiefly as the inspiration for Dave Chappelle’s “I’m Rick James, bitch!” sketch.) “Give It to Me Baby” remains a favorite on oldies stations, although before Living With Yourself, I’m not sure I’d ever thought of it as a good wedding song. After all, here’s how “Give It to Me Baby” starts…
When I came home last night
You wouldn’t make love to me
You went fast to sleep
You wouldn’t even talk to me
But hey, the show makes it work.