Paul Rudd is such a naturally ebullient actor that it can be startling to see him ground down. A gifted physical performer who, at 50, looks so youthful that his appearance tends to precede all other attributes when he’s discussed, Rudd also still has the verve and energy of a rising star — a quality that he seems to enjoy playing against. Directed by Judd Apatow, Rudd helped give the films “Knocked Up” and “This is 40” their heft by sapping himself of fun and light. We wanted to see Rudd light on his feet because we know he shouldn’t be subject to entropy like the rest of us.
The new light drama series “Living with Yourself” makes this device literal: It forces us to compare the Rudd we think we know with Rudd as he might be, were he one of us. The pilot presents us with Rudd’s Miles in pieces, barely able to muster the energy to submit even lazy pitches at his advertising job and endlessly forestalling doing his part in his wife’s (Aisling Bea) fertility treatments. Little wonder that Miles takes advantage of an opportunity suggested by a coworker (Desmin Borges) to undergo an experimental treatment; that treatment, meant to kill Miles and replace him with a rejuvenated clone who hasn’t been subject to years’ worth of living in an inhospitable world, fails only in that it does not kill him. Now, Miles and Miles must coexist — concealing the fact of their doubleness from the world around them and providing a vision of a performer as we’ve previously known him and one in a new sort of pain.
A generation ago, Rudd literally dragged himself to do chores in “Wet Hot American Summer,” throwing his body forward angrily as if fighting a newly oppressive force of gravity and crafting a genius bit of comedy. Here, forcing himself out of bed, to work, home, and back to bed, Rudd’s performance uses the same gifts but towards darker ends; the project, dragging itself forward, follows suit. As directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”), the Rudd we meet first is a human sag, endlessly pushed down. Dayton and Faris’s tendency to capture both Rudds in the same frame works, if brute-force bluntly: The person Miles is has to face down the person he could be.
Rudd’s performance almost hurts to watch, so grounded is it in a mundane sort of depression. Miles isn’t showily upset, he just has to force himself through life; confronted with someone who looks just like him but is easily able to do all the things on which Miles has given up only makes him feel more futile. New-Miles has both a fresh perspective on work and the vim to excite colleagues with his ideas; he is a doting and present romantic partner, too. Miles allows his clone to fill in for him more and more, absenting himself from his own life in the manner he’d already been doing, until it becomes apparent that Miles has gone too far in erasing himself, and until he needs to climb, laboriously, back into his own life. It’s a process defined by the repetitious stutter-stepping of actual overcoming deep depression, and as such can often be difficult not just to watch but to justify continuing. The series arrives at a place of hope that will redeem it for many viewers, but its willingness to stagger towards that moment can be punishing.
This drama, surprisingly enough created by longtime “Daily Show” producer Timothy Greenberg, is part of a growing trend of art using metaphors rooted in sci-fi or fantasy elements to tell the stories of real people overcoming personal challenges. In last year’s very fine “Maniac,” Emma Stone and Jonah Hill overcame trauma and isolation only through a fantastical voyage through experimental drug treatments; elsewhere and less successfully, “Forever” staged a distant couple’s internal debate over monogamy in a magic-seeming Heaven, and the 2017 film “Downsizing” used shrink-ray treatment as the start of a prolix and often quite moving meditation on what it means to be alive at what may be the end of the world. It’s that last film, one whose reach wildly exceeded its grasp, that I tended to think about when watching the eight episodes of “Living with Yourself.” The starting point of both is fundamentally goofy: A pea-sized Matt Damon, a doubled Rudd. But both projects want so badly to express a painful thought that they both convince you of the situation’s inherent reality and grow a bit breathless in the telling. I can think of two full episodes I’d have excised from this show’s run, not merely because it feels and is too long and recursive but because the show has a tendency to want to say everything on its mind at once.
And yet it remains curiously worth watching, both for a realer-than-ever Rudd working cleverly with his own persona and for all that it does attempt. The show’s central conceit is, boiled down, clankingly unsubtle. But so is the way Miles feels, all the time, until he helps himself find a way not to do so anymore. Forget that the Miles who helps himself is a physically different entity: The human, not the sci-fi, is what matters, and, as played by Rudd, it is real, and worth witnessing.
“Living with Yourself.” Netflix. Oct. 18. Eight episodes (all screened for review).
Cast: Paul Rudd, Aisling Bea.
Executive Producers: Timothy Greenberg, Anthony Bregman, Jeff Stern, Tony Hernandez, Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, Paul Rudd, Jeff Blitz.