The following contains spoilers for The Premise S1E3, “The Ballad of Jesse Wheeler”
After Abbi (Kaitlyn Dever) gives the best valedictorian speech ever at the end of The Premise S1E3, we may well wonder: was she telling the truth? But the strength of “The Ballad of Jesse Wheeler” lies in the fact that it truly doesn’t matter. No one thinks sex matters anymore, as Wheeler (Lucas Hedges) says earlier in the episode. What’s the difference between his contest promise and posing for a selfie or giving a hug?
In Episode 3, The Premise dives right into a world that may or may not resemble the actual one, unabashedly and without shame or pretense. Is this what young people today are like? Yes and no, or I don’t know because I’m old, but I don’t think the portrayal is totally off the mark when it comes to a shifting in certain mores that might leave some of us in older generations gobsmacked on the one hand, along with a certain depth of cultural critique lived in like a second skin on the other.
Abbi hardly seems to need to think to articulate the problems of late capitalism and draw a relationship to sex work, framing Wheeler’s offer as a liberatory gesture against structures of oppression. It’s not clear if she’s serious, except that she definitely is. That doesn’t stop it from being a game and this world she’s come up in from being structured like a contest circulating around social recognition.
The notion she floats of a certain kind of communism of fame is, of course, absurd, except it isn’t in that she has a point. Hers is just a utopian spin (in that moment, at least) on forces that one might instead gnash one’s teeth over. Perhaps it’s absurd almost in a Camusian sense—everything now on one flat plane of immanence, with no transcendent narrative or value to justify existence. Why not celebrity worship? And isn’t it better than religion, or less violent?
But it’s still worship, and at this level, it would seem Abbi doesn’t ultimately buy into what she’s saying. She doesn’t want to win because she worships Jesse as a pop star but because of their connection as children, captured from a time when people used to print pictures out. Or, that’s not quite right either. She wants to win for the symbolic element, in order to give the speech at the end that sets Principal Wallace’s (George Wallace) head spinning, give her high school two middle fingers, and so on. These things aren’t mutually exclusive.
All of the books you read in school sing this same refrain, Abbi says, if you really read them. And she’s not wrong. Literature, philosophy, history…everywhere the institutions of power are brought into question. And everywhere, as Abbi articulates, those institutions of power exploit and coopt those forces that could threaten them. If you make knowledge boring maybe nobody will want it, even though we all know knowledge is power…or could be.
Old man Mr. Holmes (Ed Asner) gets it, and Abbi is genuine in her affection for him. He’s awesome. So it’s not really exploiting him when she makes the history project she does, except it also is because she knows it will work on him and got inspired to do it while watching him talk to Andy Cohen on TV.
Perhaps this is the sort of tone The Premise tried and failed to capture in “Social Justice Sex Tape“—it’s a seriousness that is also a joke, playing in the space of human contradiction not with the darkness of Dostoevsky but with the lightness of the Tide Pod challenge.
It could cause us to despair but also alternately maybe to hope for the future. We’re not going to move beyond shallowness to some kind of Heideggerian authenticity, but perhaps we can operate genuinely on the surface, if only by being willing to play its games. Authenticity discourse is now itself a kind of bad faith.
About halfway through S1E3, Jesse says he doesn’t want to apologize because he doesn’t think he did anything wrong, and his manager Cooper (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) says that’s not how apologies work anymore. Unfortunately, he’s right. Everywhere people apologize without really meaning it, for the sake of appearances. Yet there is an effectiveness to the performative, shallow apology nonetheless.
Appearances matter insofar as they are appearances—the mistake is to take them too seriously or to imbue the surface with a false depth.
There is also truth, however, in what Jesse says about getting to be number one not by working so hard to be number one but by working so hard to be himself. It’s the allure of the genuine, even if it’s shallow. He won’t let others determine how he should appear, at least not through their standards. He claims instead that he can pick up on their vibes. The first defense of his offer is to point to the positive crowd reaction, after all.
Jesse insists that he has a relationship with God, and I believe he means it. This may involve recognizing that God also deserves some credit for things like opium or his talent at writing pop songs—it may remain at a “surface-level” and buck against many prevailing religious views—but who are we to say this isn’t faith?
Susie (Grace Song) approaches an existential crisis, wondering if she wants what she wants because she wants it or because of others. And those others want what they want because others as well. Where does it stop?
Susie finds an answer reminiscent of Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to”; Jesse Wheeler finds an answer in his interpretation of the parable of the chemist with the opium dick, and Abbi finds an answer in giving her speech and raising those middle fingers in the air.