Comedy writing rarely succeeds in telling stories about young people’s relationship to social media. For every bright spot – such as Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade – there’s an Unfriended; too often teens on screen do little else than just stare at their phone during family dinner and roll their eyes.
The sharp 2019 series The Other Two is a welcome exception. It manages to pull back the curtain on the murky, shallow and often dark world of social media stars, but does so without judgy moralism or condescension.
Written by the former Saturday Night Live co-head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, the series focuses on Cary and Brooke (played by Drew Tarver and Heléne Yorke), the adult siblings of a 13-year-old whose homemade music video, Marry You at Recess, goes viral and transforms him overnight into Chase Dreams, a Justin Bieber-style internet sensation.
Suddenly their suburban mother (played by Molly Shannon, who also starred in Other People, Kelly’s 2016 film based on the death of his mother) is plastering a permanent grin over her pain as she vows to make the most of this moment for her youngest child. She moves them all into Justin Theroux’s obnoxiously avant-garde New York City apartment (there’s only one bedroom but three saunas, and the toilet is a motorbike), hiring a desperate manager (Ken Marino, who’s made a career out of perfecting oblivious optimism) and saying yes to every opportunity that presents itself.
It’s a trait that, after a little initial hesitation, her older children soon share. Initially sceptical of the whole thing, aspiring actor Cary soon sees his little brother as his meal ticket. “We must live every day like it’s the last day Chase is famous,” Brooke tells him early on, and over the course of the season, we watch his loss of humility and self-awareness represented by an increasingly gnarly fake tan. Brooke, on the other hand, hangs up her long-abandoned teenage dream of being a performer herself to protect her little brother, correctly identifying him as fresh prey in an industry that churns through cute, talented kids like him for sport.
The show is intensely dialled in to the internet and the relatively underground economy it has bred. At a film premiere, Brooke rubs shoulders with teen influencers who recommend filters that smooth pictures of your feet to appease fetish accounts, while Cary bemoans the pressure from casting directors to be hired based on his Instagram follower count and gloms onto a troupe of “Insta-gays” to boost his profile.
But to treat The Other Two as a warning against the terror of social media or some kind of admonition of the internet would be to do it a disservice.
With backgrounds in improv and web comedy videos designed to go viral, Schneider and Kelly were experts at layering visual, musical and physical gags with classic jokes during their time on SNL. It’s clear in their music video parodies that championed the show’s female stars – including First Got Horny 2 U, Back Home Ballers and (Do It On My) Twin Bed – that they understand how the internet runs on nostalgia. For millennials, anyway.
In Chase (played by the sunny-faced Case Walker, who himself began as a viral teen heartthrob on Musical.ly, the app we now know as TikTok), Schneider and Kelly found the heart of their story, one that is not about sibling jealousy or the entertainment industry corrupting young performers – or at least, not entirely about those things.
Chase’s music is objectively bad, his moves are designed by a massive team of publicists and experts, and when it comes down to it he can’t really sing, but the jokes in the show are never at his expense. When the depth of the questions he’s asked during a red carpet interview are “Red or green? Boxers or briefs?” Then: “Israel or Palestine?”, it’s a reflection of the world of celebrity that both requests no depth and expects a perfect moral record from stars, during their brief moment of relevance.
Kelly and Schneider mention, in interviews, wanting Case to think they’re cool and in-the-know, and their show reflects how impressed and terrified millennials are of kids like him, Gen Z performers and creators who have designed a marketplace and culture for themselves that is both immensely profitable and popular, and largely invisible to those of us outside it. The Other Two is a thoroughly enjoyable glimpse inside.
• The Other Two is available now to stream on Stan