The futuristic city of Weird, the setting for the new sci-fi comedy series Weird City, from Jordan Peele and Charlie Sanders, isn’t really all that strange, especially in the context of decades of sci-fi stories about divided societies. It's split into two halves: a sleek, luxurious section for the upper classes, and a ramshackle district for the less fortunate, which mostly looks like a modern American city. They’re separated by a checkpoint called The Line, and everyone lives either Above the Line or Below the Line. Peele and Sanders seem at least slightly aware of the cliched concept, as the opening title card of the premiere lays out, "In a not-so-distant future, in a city not unlike your own, society has divided itself in two,” it begins, in the stilted manner of old-fashioned dystopian fiction, before getting a bit snarky. “Like, literally, they built a barrier between themselves called ‘The Line.’”
The Line itself doesn’t play a big role in “The One,” the first episode of the series, which premieres today on YouTube Premium. Written by Peele and Sandersm and directed by TV veteran Adam Bernstein, "The One" isn't a story about the divide between the rich and the poor. Rather, it’s a silly romantic comedy of sorts, about a supposedly infallible dating service that creates an unlikely match. Dylan O’Brien plays Stu, who was born Below the Line and only moved Above after his mother invented a successful app (whose function is to remove other apps). Thus, he doesn’t have the advantage of being assigned a mate from birth, and must wade into the murky dating pool of the future. Out one night at a bar with friends, Stu learns about The One That’s the One, a new dating service that promises a scientifically accurate match with one perfect person.
The twist is, that when the young, straight Stu gets his result from The One That’s the One, it’s older widower Burt (Ed O’Neill), who’s also been straight his entire life. What could have been an episode-long gay-panic joke turns into something more sensitive, although the creators still play the mismatched romantic connection for laughs. At first convinced there’s been a mistake, the two soon genuinely fall in love, and they go through a series of typical relationship milestones in a slightly surreal manner, as Burt meets Stu’s parents and Stu meets Burt’s adult children.
The tone is far more comedic than sci-fi anthologies like Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone, drawing more heavily on the creators’ sketch-comedy background (Sanders was a writer and producer on Key & Peele). At times that makes the episode feel a bit like an overgrown comedy sketch. But at less than 30 minutes, it doesn’t really overstay its welcome or belabor its points too extensively (unlike, say, certain episodes of Black Mirror). And because the entire series is set in the same location, the first episode also serves to lay the groundwork for future installments.
The concept of The Line isn’t the only plot element introduced to potentially be explored later. Early in the episode, Stu passes a restaurant called You Must Eat Here, and his digital smart assistant informs him that, as an Above the Line resident, he literally must eat there in the next few months. LeVar Burton plays the eccentric scientist who invented the process at the core of The One That’s the One, and the season’s trailer shows him appearing in at least one more episode. Over time, the show could build up a stable of oddball recurring characters and locations that give it more personality than the generic sci-fi premise initially offers.
Since the success of Get Out, Peele has rebranded himself as genre mastermind, but he still has plenty of comedic talent, and Key & Peele was full of sketches with strange, off-kilter premises. Weird City proves that there’s still plenty of room for humor in Peele’s work, and the light, humorous tone could set the show apart from his other work. There’s an impressive lineup of talent set for future episodes, including Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Sara Gilbert and Mark Hamill, and the show could offer them a chance to showcase different aspects of their talents, as O’Brien and O’Neill get to do in the opening episode.
Like other YouTube Premium sci-fi series, it’s clearly working on a limited budget (most of the futuristic locations don’t look much different from those of the present), but Peele’s clout obviously attracts a higher caliber of acting and writing talent. The first episode marks Weird City as another Peele project worth following.