In “Flaked,” a slackluster dramedy premiering Friday on Netflix, Will Arnett stars as Chip, a shorts-and-flip-flops fixture of Venice — not the ancient Italian city of canals, but that free-spirited, laid-back beachside community south of Santa Monica and north of Los Angeles International Airport.
Chip’s world is limited to Venice’s few familiar blocks. Years ago, according to his testimony at the daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings held at a local community center, he killed someone while driving drunk and permanently lost his license.
That’s why Chip gets everywhere by bicycle, stopping after AA to get free coffee at a new cafe called Free Coffee (it’s $5 a cup for everyone else) and then pedaling over to his sad little shop off trendy Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where he makes and sells simple wooden stools and flirts with women half his age. Chip lives in one of those terribly cute, meticulously ramshackle Venice bungalows, which is owned by the mother of his best friend, Dennis (David Sullivan), a sommelier and wine distributor who lives in the guest house.
All of which is to say that Arnett and his co-creator, Mark Chappell, have worked very hard to accurately convey the Venice vibe here, from its eclectic boardwalk to the midday meals at foodie-approved Gjelina restaurant to the ever-looming forces of gentrification, development and high-dollar upgrades that threaten to price Chip and his fauxhemian ilk out of their dreamy existence. With his Naugahyde tan and Marlboro rasp, Arnett easily inhabits the portrait of Chip and his world — there is perhaps nothing more thrilling for an actor/writer in the premium-TV-dramedy biz than to portray someone poor. Or somewhat poorer than himself.
In other words, “Flaked” arrives with the same conspicuous barrier to entry that is common to several half-hour boutique shows in the mix right now — including, but far from limited to, HBO’s “Togetherness,” Netflix’s “Love,” Hulu’s “Casual,” Amazon’s “Transparent,” and FXX’s “You’re the Worst.” In each of these shows there are moments and situations that are meant to seem authentic and relatable, but instead come across as an off-putting and insular display of creative-class kvetching.
Sending mixed signals about the distance between possibly rich and technically poor, these shows all ask their viewers to accept and understand the most exquisite kind of West Coast suffering, as experienced by a very certain stripe of creative, nerdy Los Angeles-area residents. On “Flaked,” Chip is worried about his store’s landlord selling the building. On “Togetherness,” Brett (Mark Duplass) has been sleeping on his best friend’s couch and moonlighting as an Uber driver during a marital spat. In “Transparent,” youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) depends on checks from her father (Jeffrey Tambor), who has come out as a woman.
Watch and stream enough of these downbeat, post-yuppie shows and you could build a bingo game out of the usual tropes: Character who works a menial job in the media/entertainment industry? (Check.) Non-starvation-related financial crises? (Check.) References to house envy? Fretting about real estate, school districts? (Always.) A wallow in the status-conscious mommy wars? (Usually.) High ficus walls and swimming pools symbolizing the wealth gap? (Check, check.) A Prius breaking down on the freeway? (Check.) A Stephen Malkmus soundtrack? (In “Flaked’s” case, check.)
These background class cues — which I confess can be catnip for this gimlet-eyed viewer — sometimes serve as a less Trumpian way of bemoaning the middle-class squeeze. The characters in “Flaked” are experiencing a marginalization-in-progress, exemplified by an everyday grubbiness and a sense of loss and personal failure. These details are idealized and even romanticized by the people in charge of writing and pitching TV shows to Netflix, Amazon, HBO, et al. — and the people in charge of greenlighting them.
It often feels as if the creators and writers of these shows have forgotten that most of us don’t live in L.A., nor do we wish to (why would we, after watching all these unhappy people?), nor are we all that close to anyone who works in the entertainment industry. But that’s where they live and that’s what they do — so, as the old adage goes, write what you know. That’s a sitcom feature as old (and older) than “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which was about the work-home balance of a man who was the head writer of a TV show.
And so we are forever inundated with shows about people for whom the Southern California sunshine is just another layer of self-centered, hard-to-afford ennui. Fame and fortune are often the scariest monsters in this realm, turning people into shells of Hollywood humans. In Chip’s case, that would be his ex-wife, Tilly (Heather Graham), who has found success starring in a popular network crime procedural (disgust for the genre is implied) and left Chip to rot in Venice. She now lives behind a gate high in the hills; Chip visits her to beg for help in saving his store.
That Tilly still feels obligated to Chip is “Flaked’s” first clue that things are not entirely as they seem (well, it’s the second clue, after we see that the oft-swigged jug of kombucha tea in Chip’s refrigerator is secretly red wine). By episode six, “Flaked” throws a real curve that’s nearly worth seeing through to the end, as Arnett’s performance deepens and the show becomes something more than just an excuse to loaf.
The problem is getting there. Shows such as “Love” and “Togetherness” and now “Flaked” begin with so much slouching and moseying and wallowing in their characters’ benign miseries that they come off as snobbish and unwelcoming — as if these TV series were meant to be shared only among the select group of friends who produce, write and star in them.
Such mirror-gazing, such lockstep redundancy in look and feel (and writing and acting), indicates more than just a failure of imagination. Lumped together, the shortcomings become more obvious, particularly in terms of diversity — not only racial diversity, but diversity of location, premise and sensibility. “Flaked” has something to say about a man who is utterly trapped in his own world. But since this is L.A., he’ll have to take a number.
Flaked (eight episodes) begins streaming Friday on Netflix.