It’s easy to criticize long-running sci-fi series for losing their way after a few seasons. The initial spark might fade; ridiculous plot twists might emerge; the whole thing might end with a painful hand-wave of logic.
But let’s not forget that these hit TV series, and the expectations assigned by their fans, all start with some incredible coincidences. How often do we see the right cast, writers, directors, and out-there concept come together in a watchable, memorable series? And what about when such a series jumps on a seemingly familiar sci-fi trope, yet still digs up new ideas?
By the time I finished marathoning the debut season of Living With Yourself, a Netflix series about cloning starring everyman Paul Rudd (Ant Man, Anchorman), I was floored by how this modest series had defied my expectations. When I first sat with this show, I wasn’t hot for its shameless use of the “cohabitating clones” concept from Orphan Black. Unlike that BBC America series, Living With Yourself comes with no genetic-research intrigue, no identity-hunting mystery.
Turns out, this narrower focus on cloning in an otherwise humdrum life is the fresh element that the trope needed. The domestic matters of Living With Yourself—career, family, marriage, and the existential dread of tumbling forward with an imperfect partner—shine much brighter through the lens of two Rudds instead of just one.
Is it “Pauls Rudd”?
Mild spoilers below.
The series opens with Miles (Rudd) crashing and burning as a middle-aged man. His wife hates him. He’s uninspired at work. He can’t get anything right. And his downer state is immediately brought into relief as compared to Dan (Desmin Borges), a colleague at his PR firm who’s knocking everything out of the park while radiating a newly sexy glow. What’s his secret?
Dan wastes no time fessing up over drinks, and he keeps it simple: “I went to a spa.” Miles immediately makes a joke about “happy endings,” but Dan insists: this place is not sexual, but something else. Exclusive. Cleansing. The fact that Miles needs little more provocation than that insistence speaks loudly to what a rut he’s landed in. When he calls the spa, its insane demand—$50,000 in cash—only makes Miles more determined to go.
By the way: moments before we see Miles in his rut, the series opens with a very different version of Paul Rudd’s character… completely naked and on the brink of death. Which is to say: we as audience members start the show assuming that this spa is indeed not ordinary.
There’s a yadda-yadda-yadda between this point and the part where one Paul Rudd becomes two Paul Rudds (or is it Pauls Rudd?), and the above description leaves much of the show’s trajectory unspoiled. And let me be careful to describe the genetic-research “metaverse” surrounding the way Rudd is cloned. In short: yes, there is a mysterious web wove around this part of the plot, but Living With Yourself is judicious about when and how that drives the story. Meaning: this isn’t The X-Files or Orphan Black in terms of a pervasive, confusing illuminati. Instead, little elements about these shadowy puppeteers emerge mostly for the sake of dark comedy or absurdity.
Which is great, because that levity becomes welcome as the series dives into the way relationships can sour after so many years. Miles’ urge to transform and get “cleansed” come largely because of his marriage’s disrepair, but when he becomes two versions of himself—one’s older and broken, the other is refreshed and spirited—his wife Kate (played by Aisling Bea) has an opportunity to experience many versions of her husband. There’s the Miles of old, which we experience as viewers through lengthy flashbacks. There’s the refreshed clone version of Miles, who woke up on the night of his spa treatment with the exact same memories and experiences, only recast through a new prism of confidence and optimism. And there’s the “real” Miles who has landed in the modern day, for better and for worse.
All sides of both personalities
Exactly how Kate experiences each version of Miles is best seen in the show, instead of reading it in this review like a list. What I will say is that each version of Miles has both unique and consistent qualities, and Kate reacts in kind. Both actors are at the top of their game to reveal their characters’ most broken elements through the course of their relationships. Each version of Miles and Kate projects a hope or belief onto their partner while clearly suffering from that projection’s disconnect with reality, and by the end of the series, Rudd and Bea reveal themselves as master craftspeople.
We’ve all been there—trying to be our “best” self in a way that doesn’t add up, whether to fit into a new relationship, new job, or new thread in life—but no TV series has ever honed in so squarely on this specific identity crisis. The cloning gimmick gets this job done in ways that Orphan Black‘s most comedic mixed-identity moments only hinted at.
Conversely, the series’ first two episodes flounder with Kate as a one-dimensional grump who shrugs her shoulders at some of the series’ bigger logical leaps. She takes way too much of “new Miles” in stride, and that seems to be a lazy move by the writers to push the series along. Once we get to the more brutal examinations of their marriage, by way of flashbacks and interactions with the clone, those complaints about the opening episodes melt away a bit.
Which is to say: power through all eight episodes of Living With Yourself if you seek deep exploration of both the positive and negative fallout that we imagine about developing genetic therapies, particularly CRISPR. The 2019 documentary Human Nature includes some refreshing conversations with real children who suffer from genetic disorders and who say they would forgo CRISPR treatment even if it “fixed” their worst conditions. They wouldn’t be the same person, these kids argue.
Living With Yourself takes that genetic-therapy scrutiny to heart in remarkably subtle fashion, while also making room for the potential of cutting-edge science as a path towards our best selves. There’s no right answer in this TV series, and as a result, there’s room for us to hate, and love, both versions of Paul Rudd.