Sea Oak, a new half-hour Amazon pilot, is the beloved fiction writer George Saunders’s first foray into television. Adapted from his short story of the same name with the help of director Hiro Murai, of Atlanta fame, and its star Glenn Close, it is one of the strangest pieces of television I’ve seen in some time. Though it is defiantly genre-agnostic, I’d venture to describe it as a middle American Grimm’s fairy tale, a fucked-up fable about the hollow promises of capitalism or...something.
For fans of Saunders’s work, the show will come as less of a shock. The author’s sui generis, exemplified in stories like “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and “Escape from Spiderhead,” lies in his ability to construct worlds both uniquely estranged from and familiar to our own—absurdist portraits of the human condition, America and American-ness. In his prose, Saunders accomplishes this feat most effectively by developing his own offbeat argot, jargon-filled voices that inoculate his characters from the world beyond the confines of their story. “Sea Oak” is no exception: it is littered with satirical names like “DrugTown” and “FlexTime,” not to mention a tweaked-out teenage slang, the characters’ dialogue saturated with words like “freaking” and “chick.”
In the show Sea Oak, Saunders, who wrote the script, wisely dials back the linguistic zaniness. Thankfully, Murai, who did so much to establish the dreamy, otherworldly mood of Atlanta, captures the spirit of the story for the screen. The pilot, tone-wise, is like nothing else I’ve seen; thrillingly, you never know quite how to feel while watching it.
If you haven’t seen the pilot or read the story yet, you might want to stop reading here. The plot contains a twist that should not be spoiled by ecstatic reviewers. Revolving around a family who lives in a shoddy subsidized housing complex known as Sea Oak—“A place to live,” the welcome sign drolly reads—we’re introduced to Cole (Jack Quaid), his sister Min (the everywhere-lately Jane Levy), his cousin Jade (Rae Gray), their respective babies and Aunt Bernie, played with particular verve by Glenn Close.
Cole is dutiful and boyishly attractive. He works at a place called Posers, where he literally poses, behind a pane of glass, as a hunky ancient Egyptian. An odd hybrid between a strip joint and a natural history museum, Posers is a textbook Saunders creation: believably absurd and vaguely meaningful. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Cole’s boss, Mr. Frendt, is brought to life by James Van Der Beek—an actor who, in the latest phase of his career, has become accustomed to playing characters alive to their own bullshit.
Min and Jade, by contrast to Cole, are content to eat junk food, watch shitty TV and haphazardly take care of their newborns, like insolent caricatures of the young mothers on MTV's Teen Mom. Meanwhile, Aunt Bernie, mild-mannered and meek, slaves away at a local dollar store. Theirs is a bleak, tentative existence, punctuated with displays of genuine affection and gunshots from the local hooligans living nearby.
About halfway through the pilot, Min and Jade discover their Aunt Bernie dead in her recliner, the result, we are led to believe, of a break-in. The family buries her, at a funeral interrupted by a bulldozer. A few days later, Min, Jade and Cole receive a call from the local priest—Aunt Bernie’s body has disappeared.
The penultimate scene that soon follows is as hilarious as it is frightening. Aunt Bernie, it seems, has come back from the dead, determined to live out the life she never had while she was alive. In a monologue delivered from her recliner to her nieces and nephews, Bernie implores Cole to “show his cock” for money, demands Min learn to cook and expresses her desire to take many lovers (evidently, she’d died a virgin). Glenn Close delivers her lines with jaw-dropping purpose. It’s intense and funny and bizarre and horrifying and quite possibly brilliant.
The pilot ends more or less where the short story did. What happens next, should the show be plucked from Amazon's pilot season and picked up to series, is anyone's guess. But I can’t wait to find out.