Rob Lowe may have intended to get personal with Unstable, but it’s just a rote sitcom destined to be forgotten.
Unstable appears to be a deeply personal show for lead actor and co-creator Rob Lowe. After all, it revolves around a father/son duo played by Lowe and his real-life son, John Owen Lowe. Rob Lowe’s headlined worse stuff than this, for sure. Nonetheless, you’d think a series that seems rooted in something this personal would be more engaging to watch. At least, it might take some bold swings. Tragically, Unstable is a mostly just average comedy that leaves little in the way of an impression for good or ill.
Ellis Dragon (Rob Lowe) is a wealthy icon in the field of bioresearch who seemingly has everything. Everything, except for a way to cope with the recent death of his wife, that is. This tragedy has put Dragon into a downward spiral of eccentric behavior, further alienating him from his estranged son Jackson (John Owen Lowe). In the first episode, flute-playing Jackson returns to Los Angeles as a way of potentially grounding his outlandish dad. From there, the program depicts these two lead characters navigating a complicated father/son relationship. Jackson must, additionally, negotiate his dynamic with his father’s employees, including Luna (Rachel March) and Ruby (Emma Ferreira).
By the end of the series premiere, the audience learns Ellis has kidnapped a therapist meant to report his behavior to his shareholders. It’s a dark development totally at odds with the tone of the preceding 20 or so minutes. However, it potentially suggests an unpredictable show beginning to blossom before one’s eyes. Unfortunately, this shocking “twist” fizzles out. Instead of a surprise, it becomes yet more evidence of the program’s inert writing. There’s just no real pulse or energy to anything.
The biggest issue here is a lopsided tone. Big dramatic developments come across as lifeless, while equally pronounced stabs at comedy register as similarly comatose. Unstable boasts easygoing vibes and a plethora of characters being gentle with one another. It fits right into the mold of Ted Lasso, right down to the presence of an intimidatingly powerful British lady with a heart of gold in the supporting cast. However, Ted Lasso avoided becoming insufferable in its rampant upbeat nature by emphasizing endearing underdog characters. Clinging to optimism was a way of getting out of bed in the morning for a soccer team and coach everyone had written off.
By contrast, Unstable centers on a billionaire constantly making jokes about his son’s “flabby core.” It’s hard to connect with the lovey-dovey vibes when Ellis Dragon’s moral complications can’t easily inhabit such an aesthetic. Most of the time, I was more inclined to groan than become invested in his personal drama. The scripts bending over backward to talk about how “genius” and “loveable” Ellis is only compounds the problem. Such lines may have soothed Rob Lowe’s ego on set, but they encapsulate a show in love with a lead that the audience has no reason to care about.
This new collaboration between Rob and John Owen Lowe is so forgettable that it fails to muster up any passionate emotions.
Still, a breezy Netflix sitcom like Unstable could’ve made it without rich character-based details if the gags were dynamite. Unfortunately, the program frequently sags whenever it’s time for laughs. Once you hear one Unstable character drop dated pop culture references (an August: Osage County name-drop…in 2023?!?) or sarcasm-laden retorts, you’ve heard most of this production’s comedic dialogue. Performers like Rachel March try their best to wring giggles out of their line deliveries, but it’s just no use. There are only so many ways you can polish a turd.
While the “funny” dialogue in Unstable largely misses, a handful of visual gags, like an extended comedic beat involving too many characters piling into a freezer, do prove amusing. If the show had leaned more on humorous imagery, perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a slog. Another positive attribute, the score by Sven Faulconer and Mark Foster (the latter of whom is from the band Foster the People), provides a unique sonic bed compared to other sitcoms.
These tracks are often dominated by chants seemingly lifted from the opening of the “Montage” song in Swiss Army Man. Those mix with clanking wood instruments that sound like they’re two seconds away from blasting out the White Lotus theme song. Combining such disparate creative inspirations and a zippy tone ensure that Faulconer and Foster’s work on Unstable demonstrates more risk and creativity than anything else in the show.
By the time Unstable’s season finale rolled around, I found myself gripped by a distressing feeling: apathy. This new collaboration between Rob and John Owen Lowe is so forgettable that it fails to muster up any passionate emotions. Instead, it’s something doomed to slip away into the vast Netflix library, never to be heard from again just a few hours after all eight of its episodes drop. Perhaps if Unstable had mined its primary father/son dynamic for richer storytelling or even just more amusing goofy gags, it could’ve avoided a fate that plagues so many sitcoms in the streaming era.
Unstable begins disrupting the sitcom paradigm on Netflix March 30.