If it weren’t clear before that Netflix is moving further and further into more experimental content — Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Anima, The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience — then Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein cements the shift. A 32-minute mockumentary starring Stranger Things’ David Harbour as a fictionalized version of himself (and co-produced by indie darling A24), the special is one of the stranger things to hit the streaming platform, though also perhaps a harbinger of Netflix’s “too much” ethos encroaching upon its smaller projects as well.
Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein, which is streaming now, refers to the televised stage play that Harbour’s (fictional) late father, David Harbour Jr., wrote and mounted as his final work. Harbour has dug up the footage in order to learn more about his father, recreating his office as well as his chili recipe in an attempt to stir the memories of the people who knew him. The special cuts between present-day footage of Harbour, parts of the play, and old clips of Harbour Jr. and his peers, painting a picture that’s entertaining enough, if not necessarily a good justification for its own existence.
Of those three parts, it is naturally the stage play that dominates the special, as every cast member — Harbour, Alex Ozerov, Kate Berlant, Alfred Molina (!!!), among others — overacts to a comic extreme, with the overall aesthetic resembling the American Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. It’s the loudest portion of the special — and is also the kind of bit that feels like it might have done better as an even shorter skit, relying on Harbour’s comedic talents, or a longer bit, which would have given Berlant, Ozerov, and Molina more of a chance to cultivate some depth rather than relying on hamming it up as their single character trait.
For better or worse, the special unquestionably belongs to Harbour. That center flourishes when he’s left to his own devices, as in the footage of Harbour Jr. in interviews and advertisements in which he comes off as a sort of parody of late-period Orson Welles, snarfing down beef Wellington or declaring, at various points, à la Jon Lovitz, “And THAT’S how I got into Juilliard!” Harbour is good at playing that kind of pomposity, which ultimately seems to be the point of the special rather than developing a coherent story.
To wit, the scenes that take place in the present have a tendency to wander (despite the presence of Mary Woronov and Michael Lerner as Harbour Jr.’s former colleagues). Harbour’s journey in discovering what a cad his father was holds little water because he doesn’t seem to have been so invested in him to begin with. That flimsiness — which isn’t always crippling for comedy specials like this, as The Lonely Island has proved — makes it difficult to invest much in the proceedings, which means viewer attention may begin to wander even before the half hour is through. It’s the same principle by which Netflix’s TV series began feeling bloated, filling out unnecessarily long series orders and padding episode lengths to a degree that ultimately dragged them down.
That said, Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein is still worth recommending by virtue of its brief runtime and Harbour’s hamminess. (Berlant, as always, is great, but just not given enough to do; the same goes for Molina, whose inexplicable appearance is a joy but also a waste.) It’s also, however, the loosest and least cogent of the specials that Netflix has yet produced, suggesting that the “throw things at the wall and see what sticks” strategy that defines so much of what appears on the platform is hitting its more innovative sidebars, too.
Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein is streaming now.