American culture is obsessed with self-transformation. From Benjamin Franklin to “American Idol,” we love stories about how some anonymous someone from nowhere attained fame, fortune and the perfect figure through discipline, brilliance and a sunny disposition. All you need is determination and a dream, and your humdrum life will become a Hollywood success story.
The new absurdist Netflix sitcom, "Living With Yourself," initially seems ready to follow the usual formula. Paul Rudd, cast against eternally cheerful type, plays deflated, shuffling nonentity Miles Elliot, a downwardly mobile ad executive who wants to regain his spark and passion. Like many a protagonist before him, he sets out to change his life — and succeeds! But unlike those other protagonists, he discovers that self-help is a death cult. The dream of a better you isn't a liberating opportunity. It's just another opportunity for our culture to elaborately humiliate you while selling you useless crap.
Paul Rudd, cast against eternally cheerful type, plays deflated, shuffling nonentity Miles Elliot, a downwardly mobile ad executive who wants to regain his spark and passion.
At the beginning of the eight-episode series, Miles is unprepared and unmotivated at work and seems about to lose his job. His marriage to Kate (Aisling Bea) is also floundering. In desperation, he raids the funds Kate set aside for fertility treatments in order to pay for a supposedly miraculous spa visit that is guaranteed to make him a better version of himself — more focused, more imaginative, more loving and better dressed.
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Unfortunately, it turns out that the spa company — located in a strip mall — makes you “better” through illegal cloning. The storefront samples its clients' DNA, purifies it, grows a duplicate, transfers memories and then kills the original, burying the customer's body in public parkland. Something goes wrong with the knockout gas, though, and old Miles doesn't die. He pulls himself out of the ground to discover that a newer, superior Miles has taken his place (allowing Paul Rudd to return to the cheerfully charming persona he has become known for.)
The rest of the series is a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare in which old Miles watches his clone take over his life and do it better. New Miles pitches a hokey, cheerful ad campaign that wows his boss and makes his young assistant throw herself at him. He tells funny anecdotes; he doesn't argue with his wife. He even revamps the play old Miles had been working on unsuccessfully for years.
Old Miles thought that a new him would make him happy. In fact, though, improved Miles functions as a constant, bleak rebuke. The dream of self-improvement is also a demand that you completely self-actualize by working hard and succeeding at everything. If success is just a matter of trying, that means failure is your fault. Miles' better self haunts him, suggesting that he could have been more attractive and secured all the big contracts if he'd just sat up straighter, combed his hair, applied himself and stopped being a spineless loser.
The new perfect you is less a hope than a constant accusation. Because if you can transform yourself, why haven’t you already? Old Miles is miserable watching new Miles in the flesh. But he was just about equally miserable before, when new Miles was just a mental projection. Our virtual better selves sit on our shoulders, mocking our failures.
As important, new Miles isn't much happier than old Miles — primarily because new Miles doesn't really exist. He's just a clone. Because of the memory transfer, he thinks he's Miles initially, but he soon learns that he's just a copy.
The new perfect you is less a hope than a constant accusation. Because if you can transform yourself, why haven’t you already?
Even Kate, who is initially wowed by the attentive romantic her husband has changed into, eventually finds new Miles' chipperness and perfection uncanny — and "frankly exhausting." How would you like to date Ben Franklin as he presents himself in his autobiography, constantly boasting about his time management skills and leaping out of bed early while babbling remorseless aphorisms about being healthy, wealthy and wise? The dirty secret of self-help is that the better person you're supposed to become, stripped of bad habits and negative thoughts and cynicism, may very well be like clone Miles, an irritating goody two-shoes.
The series has a lot of fun cross-cutting back and forth between the Miles's, rerunning scenes from their two different viewpoints. What holds everything together, though, is Rudd's low-key performance. Unlike J.K. Simmons in “Counterpart,” or Tatiana Maslany in "Orphan Black," Rudd isn't trying for a virtuoso turn where he plays multiple, different characters who happen to look the same. He doesn't switch mannerisms or change his voice much. Instead, new Miles is basically the same as old Miles, with straighter posture, cleaner clothes and a better attitude. Even when they're rolling around on the ground punching each other's identical noses, they have the same memories. They finish each other's anecdotes. They even hate the same credenza.
No number of spa treatments or self-help slogans can change the fact that there's only one of you. The pure, rich, famous self isn't an aspiration so much as it is a ghostly doppelganger that will eat you if you let it. "Living With Yourself" suggests that your best self is the one that isn't trying, in that American way, to become better.