In Unstable, Netflix’s latest comedy series, Jackson Dragon (John Owen Lowe), a twenty-something flute instructor, tries to escape the shadow of his father, Ellis Dragon (Rob Lowe), an eccentric-billionaire-tech-genius and the head of Dragon, his bioengineering company. The show is inspired by the real-life dynamic between the father-son creators/writers/stars Rob and John Owen Lowe, begging the question: What would it be like if Rob Lowe was your father? Although the dynamic had entertaining potential, the resulting show contains all the elements of a comedy without ever achieving it.
In the show, Jackson Dragon is called home to California to tend to his grieving father months after the death of his wife and Jackson’s mother. Ellis Dragon has been absent from his bioengineering lab for some time and seems to be on such a downward spiral that the board of Dragon threatens to oust him as CEO if he can’t prove he’s cleaning up his act by delivering a new scientific breakthrough (that will make a lot of money and help the environment). Jackson has spent his life trying to escape the domineering presence of his narcissistic father, but decides to remain at home, work for the family company, and keep Ellis on track, preventing him from indulging his every whim.
The show expects viewers to grow begrudgingly impressed with the elder Dragon as he proves himself as a scientist/boss/father and charmed by the younger’s quiet intelligence and a-DORK-able attempts at dating and corralling his father. After a series full of clunky scenarios where father and son prove to be more similar than they thought different, I never quite warmed up to the billionaire father or the searching-for-identity-son. The show is too weak to fly by on Rob Lowe’s charisma alone and ultimately suffers by trying to balance likability with the off-the-rails-billionaire bit.
Unstable is at its best when it commits to its base concept. For example, Ellis kidnaps the therapist (Fred Armisen) the Dragon board mandated to him, holding the doctor hostage so he can’t deliver an unsavory prognosis to the skeptical (and power-hungry) board members. The therapist quickly succumbs to Ellis’ charms and he becomes more of a live-in-playmate, watching movies and building forts with his former kidnapper. It’s just crazy enough for a billionaire to believably get away with and it’s silly. But, Ellis takes the office to karaoke? Average, not at all silly enough. When the show gets too realistic—say, at a run-of-the-mill karaoke bar—it only increases the contrast between real office culture and the one the Lowes seem to believe in. Besides, any boss with an HR department can organize after-work drinks.
The show struggles because of its too good to be true crazy-(good guy)-billionaire. The Ellis we come to know is compassionate and concerned with, at the very least, corporate ethics. He has an ego but it rarely undermines the scientific achievements or profit margins of his company. Instead of a show about a hypothetical Elon Musk-type and his son, trying to fix their relationship and maintain control of the company (Succession-style), the Lowes created a comedy about their father-son relationship, plugging in different names and changing their professional setting from a television writer’s room (where John Owen actually works with on his father’s show, Lone Star 9-1-1) to a laboratory.
In another world the duo adapted their relationship into a Curb Your Enthusiasm style show, heightening their personalities and father-son dynamic without having to dip into the worlds of bioengineering/tech-company culture or coming up with the last name “Dragon”. That show could skewer Rob’s narcissism (the whole Rob Lowe-persona) and poke fun at his fading career while being on the self-aware side of John Owen’s nepotism baby status. Watching the two of them faux-navigate LA and John Owen’s early entertainment career would be hilarious.
Instead, they opted to combine the feel-good-ensemble of Ted Lasso, the Silicon Valley humor of Mythic Quest, and the on-screen energy of Rob Lowe, resulting in a tired concept and an utterly inoffensive show (derogatory). Although the rest of the cast does their best to bring levity and structure to the show, it is not enough to make up for the otherwise bland concept and writing. Sian Clifford (Claire in Fleabag) does her best, but is miscast as Anna, Ellis’ assistant who just tries keeping the company running. Ruby Rosario (Emma Ferreira) and Luna Castillo (Rachel Marsh) are young (but highly accomplished) scientists running their own lab at Dragon, each becoming romantically involved with Jackson in one way or another. The younger cast is rounded out by Malcolm (Aaron Branch) who is Jackson’s childhood friend, turned Ellis Dragon-admirer-and-employee, turned prematurely-promoted-project-manager. Ferreira and Marsh, in particular, play off each other nicely and do a commendable job injecting realism into their very unrealistic R&D laboratory.
Unstable is among a handful of contemporary shows that concern billionaires (and exorbitant wealth): Succession, Industry, Billions. That doesn’t even account for eccentric-genius-founder media properties: The Dropout, The Righteous Gemstones, Mythic Quest, WeCrashed, Super Pumped, Silicon Valley. Yes, the tech-genius-billionaire-bit heightens the existing Lowe/Lowe dynamic, but it’s a heavily mined concept and Unstable has a far weaker angle considering the extreme positions of, say, the relationships among a billionaire-televangelist family or Logan Roy and his spawn. Unstable shot for Netflix-likability instead of its base concept, unwilling to commit Rob Lowe’s Ellis to the kind of narcissism that causes material harm, and suffers because of it.
Unstable is available to stream on Netflix.