Cloning and the ethics thereof pop up a lot in cinema and TV, particularly sci-fi – whether it’s the “clone wars” and the stormtroopers of Star Wars or the many incarnations of Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black.
The ostensible motivations for the writers of introducing clones is to introduce an ethical or existential consideration. The Island asked if it was ethical to clone ourselves to create spare parts. Moon similarly asked if it’s ethical to create versions of ourselves to do jobs more cheaply than would be possible. In cinemas right now, we have The Gemini Man (no, not that one), which questions whether the government should be allowed to clone us to replace us with younger versions of ourselves, once we get a bit old and tired.
You don’t have to look too hard at even that little list before you realise that those reasons for the respective movies’ existence are pretty tissue-thin. Rather, beyond a cursory examination of the issues, all these uses of cloning have instead been about giving actors a chance to show off by playing several roles at once, sometimes with themselves.
So it’s odd then that the first TV show in quite some time to really consider what cloning might mean, psychologically, philosophically and existentially is a comedy written by Timothy Greenberg (The Detour) and starring Paul Rudd (Ant-Man, Anchorman, Friends) and Aisling Bea (I Feel Bad).
The Clonus Comedy
The show sees copywriter Rudd and interior designer Bea on the downslope of a marriage. The fun’s gone, they don’t talk to one another and their efforts at having a baby have come to naught. Rudd’s career is no better and he’s beginning to lose inspiration – allowing fellow co-worker Desmin Borges (You’re The Worst) to steal a march on him.
Then Borges confesses that he’s got ahead thanks to a day at the spa that utterly refreshed him. It’s exclusive and pricey – $50,000 – but he can get Rudd in if he wants. Rudd caves in and soon, he too is enjoying the benefits of the treatment.
However, it’s not long before he discovers what the treatment actually is: he’s been cloned. Or more accurately, the original Rudd has been cloned and then improved – and he’s the result.
But there’s been a glitch in the process and the original Rudd wakes to find himself buried in the woods in a plastic bag. Soon, the two of them are having to work out how to live with one another. And Bea.
Living With Yourself – literally and metaphorically
Living With Yourself isn’t the first comedy to do cloning, of course, the most famous example being Multiplicity. But to be honest, calling it a comedy is a bit of an over-sell – the script balances on a knife-edge between Scandinavian psychological introspection and a French examination of troubled married life.
At a literal level, Living With Yourself examines the psychological reasons you might want to clone yourself and create a better version of yourself, as well as what that might mean. Here, it doesn’t just go to the physical but also the mental, as the show takes liberties with the science – cloned Rudd gets clones of Rudd’s memories.
If you could give your clone your memories, would those memories be less valid? Who would ‘own’ your life, particularly if you were originally intended to replace your life’s original owner? If there’s no such thing as soul, does it matter if your wife cheats on you… with you?
What exactly would a ‘better’ you be like anyway? Even if it’s a genetically better version of you, is that actually better? And not just better but ‘best’ or are you still going to be a loser, even if you’re the best you?
Once you stuck that clone into your life, would it actually regress? Are we the sum of our memories and our environment, brought down by events around us, with “improved” genetics of no real import? And if we had better memories because we are ‘genetically better’ and could remember so many more details of our relationship, how would that make our (normal) partners feel?
And that’s just looking at Living With Yourself‘s more obvious concerns.
Living with Paul Rudd
But the show works far more at a metaphorical level. As the title suggests, it’s all about coming to terms with who you are as a person. Essentially, Rudd’s character is depressed and his clone is an undepressed version of himself. Rudd may want to be like his happier clone, but is his happier work genuinely better or is it more superficial than the more critical Rudd’s? Does Bea love the undepressed, flawed Rudd or does the romantic, considerate Rudd hold more appeal?
Equally, romantic, undepressed Rudd throws everything to the wind, including his career, as he seizes the day. So is that actually better, or has the flawed Rudd, still concerned by the everyday, got it right? Does a better life involve a flight to Paris or not, or is that papering over other issues?
Reinforcing that idea of multiple owners of reality, Living With Yourself flits between different points of views. Frequently, one episode will be dedicated to one character, only for the next episode to retell events from the point of view another. There are flashbacks to before the events of the show and within the show. Frequently, you’ll find minor details in scenes take on far more importance in later episodes when their real meaning is unveiled.
Why so serious? Both of you?
All of which makes the show sound more serious than it is. While its concerns are decidedly existential – as the title suggests, it’s all about how to accept who you are and maybe be happy – it does have jokes and it can make you laugh. The FDA’s “human cloning department” are absurd, and there’s the frequent interactions between Rudd and the Fertility Clinic personnel. The inter-Rudd battles are also played for laughs. Even the potentially evil spa is an amusing place in a strip mall, at which a young girl in a unicorn outfit lives.
Using a cast of comedians in reasonably straight roles is a smart move because even when it’s trying to be a thriller or a sci-fi drama, the cast are making you either laugh or care for their characters. Without Bea and Rudd, the whole thing could have been considerably bleaker, but together (and with, erm, Rudd) they make it a far more engaging affair.
I won’t say I really enjoyed Living With Yourself, since it is effectively a sci-fi-comedy Trojan horse into an Ingmar Bergman film. But it’s certainly stimulating, asks good questions, is centred on well formed characters and constantly keeps you guessing. The ending’s a little more open-ended and angling for a second season than I’d have liked, but it’s definitely been one of the best Netflix shows I’ve watched this year.