At first blush there should be no question whether I would like On The Verge. For the love of collapsing collagen, it’s a show written by and starring middle-aged women that addresses relationships, motherhood, work, and unrealized dreams! But, for large portions of the series I found most of the characters either unlikeable, overly privileged, emotionally stunted, or uninteresting. Still, I felt compelled to keep watching—I found the intimate portrayals of mother and son relationships intriguing, and I was drawn in by the sometimes bananas plotlines.
Justine (Julie Delpy, who co-wrote the series) is the very successful owner and chef of a restaurant in Los Angeles where she lives with her out-of-work French architect husband Martin (Mathieu Demy)—who looks far too much like he’s doing Terry Richardson cosplay for my comfort—and their eleven year old son Albert (Christopher Convery). In addition to visually assaulting the viewers with his creepy mustache and gold aviator glasses, Martin is also emotionally abusive and undermining to his wife.
I almost stopped watching because he was so absolutely awful and miserable and quietly cruel to Justine. When Justine asks him how a dress looks he suggests she keep her coat on. Even though he’s home all day, he passive aggressively insists that she does all the grocery shopping, cooking, and child schlepping. He guilts her for not being around enough for Albert, even though it’s Martin who can barely hold a conversation with the kid. He blames her that Albert can’t speak French that well. Please note that they are both native French speakers. He forces her to use the utility closet to write her cookbook—which narrates the series—while he takes over the large, airy office for all of his work.
He speaks badly about her friends and wonders if maybe she should find new, better people to spend time with. (Talk about a giant, waving, visible from space red flag.) Once, in a moment of vulnerability, Martin sobs about how hard it is that no one sees the value in his skills. You almost feel sympathy for the jackass until he points out that it’s especially hard since he’s so much more talented than Justine. I could write a thesis just on the absolute horror show of a human being that is Martin. I only hope that his character was entirely drawn from Julie Delpy’s imagination and not from any lived experience, but I’m doubtful.
But wait! Before we dig into the plot more, let me just say that I guarantee that more than a few reviewers—and probably mostly men—are going to wax poetic about how “French” this series is. By which they likely mean that it sometimes has scenes where people pontificate philosophically about something or other or where characters tell sexually explicit stories that appear to have no real place in the story or where surreal things happen or… You know what? It doesn’t really matter what they mean because I also guarantee you that nine times out ten “French” is just coded language for “if you don’t like this it’s because you’re not smart or cultured enough to get it.” But that’s all total bullshit and the people peddling it are intellectual snake oil salesmen. Like it or don’t like it but, either way, it’s got nothing to do with your intelligence.
We meet Justine on the night she’s getting together with her three best friends to celebrate Yasmin’s (Sarah Jones) birthday. They gather together at Yasmin’s over glasses of wine and slabs of carrot cake to toast the second half of her life, though Justine points out that maybe she only has a third of it left. Yasmin, who is a Black-Iranian-Muslim woman, now in her mid-forties, still trying to complete her doctorate, and covering up a super-secret past career, lives in Venice, CA with her husband William (Timm Sharp), a white man who does something with coding that has made them wealthy, and their son Orion (Jayden Haynes-Starr), who Yasmin worries about constantly. At the gathering, Ell (Alexia Landeau, who co-wrote the series), a white, single-mother of three children with three different men of three different races who keeps getting fired from jobs, launches into a story about how she gave their friend and Justine’s business partner Jerry (Giovanni Ribisi) a blow job and then he tried to pay her for it. The story, it will later turn out, is only partly true. She more or less forced the blow job on Jerry who is maybe addicted to sex or love or something (this part is very unclear to me and possibly meant to be a joke, but it’s not really funny) and he was already giving her money because she’s flat broke. And then there is Anne (Elizabeth Shue), a childrens’ boutique clothing designer trying to expand into womenswear, who lives with her son Sebastian (Sutton Waldman) and husband George (Troy Garity)—who she doesn’t know is about to ask for a trial separation—in a house paid for entirely by her mother (Stefanie Powers). In fact, all of Anne’s life, including her rather large marijuana habit, her substantial business losses, and the in-ground pool she didn’t want, are covered entirely by her extremely wealthy and unkind mother. Gretchen (Jennifer E. Gardner), a morose and apathetic German au pair who wears nothing but hooded onesies, also lives with Anne and her family. Gretchen’s biggest redeeming quality is that she is repulsed when George gives Sebastian a hard time about wearing things like leotards or dresses or not wanting to play soccer.
And so we follow these characters through twelve episodes of the ups and downs, ins and outs, and sometimes totally wackadoodle happenings of their lives. The problem, I think, is that they are all so busy with their frenetic lives that they lack the depth needed for viewers to understand them. I’m fine with a character I dislike as long as I understand them, but I don’t feel that way about these people. I’m confused by Yasmin, who swings wildly between lavishing praise on her husband and accusing him of not loving her. She worries that she’ll be seen as a housewife whose white husband pays for her hair removal, and she lashes out at Will when he mentions that he wants to see the strong, smart woman he married again. I just don’t know what the show is trying to say? That women who stay home with kids are harshly judged by society? Definitely true. That their talents and intelligence are wasted? I take umbrage with that. I agree she needs something that’s just for her outside of motherhood, but I don’t know that it needs to be a career per se. At one point someone tells Yasmin she’s too intelligent to be home making lemon preserves. Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize there was an IQ cut off for making food for pleasure or survival. Lemme go tell all my smart friends they best stop feeding themselves and their families because they’re just too good for it. I’m exaggerating, but on my honor, that kind of bullshit sends me over the edge. It’s one of the many ways the patriarchy tries to divide women, thus making us easier to keep down. Anyway, Yasmin also gets pulled back into her pinky-swear-you-won’t-tell former life, which I won’t spoil, except to say that it involves a hidden flip phone and clandestine meetings, and might not really be about her after all.
Ell, on the other hand, is constantly on the edge of financial ruin since she keeps doing things that get her very rightfully fired from jobs. Her house is always in chaos, her children constantly argue with each other and with her, and she is always scheming up another idea to make money by somehow exploiting her children, which would be mostly fine—I guess—except that she lies to those around her and doesn’t get everyone’s consent. Her friends keep talking about helping her, but they never seem to come through. Or when they do it’s with a job at which she seems doomed to fail. Wouldn’t the people who understand her weaknesses know not to put her in charge of organizing anything? She has the attention span of a housefly (and also its ethics). At one point her Black daughter (Daphne Albert) complains that Ell doesn’t understand what it’s like for her, and Ell responds that she doesn’t get why she can’t just be Black and white. Her daughter rightly balks and Ell throws up her hands and the scene ends, and I’m not at all sure what we as viewers are supposed to make of it. I mean, I know what I made of it, but there’s not really enough meat on the bones of Ell’s character or the show to understand what to do with the conversation. And then it’s just left there. Tossed aside, I guess for her daughter’s therapist to pick up and deal with later in life.
In another scene Yasmin and Will lament the fact that homelessness has caused the value of their house in Venice to drop by at least ten percent. Like, are we supposed to sympathize with them or scorn them? I don’t know because, again, I don’t feel like there is enough background to their characters to decide. I mean, I know what I felt, but I was confused as to what the intent of the series was. This is also the part where Will talks about a McMansion going up in Justine’s Mar Vista neighborhood, which made me snort because his tall, modern, sleek house in Venice is the kind that would make my aunt (who has lived there for over forty years) rant about “those people” moving in and tearing down bungalows to put up over-priced monstrosities that block views while her voice reaches an octave only dogs can hear. Anyway, I digress, this privileged discussion of homelessness goes nowhere else. It’s a dead end street. Unless you count later when Anne has an entanglement with a man who wrote a book called No Home No Sweat and she realizes that he’s technically homeless, but hoo boy howdy she does know that’s a very privileged kind of homeless, right?!? Right?!? I don’t think she does. And I have no idea what the show realizes or doesn’t realize. There are other moments where someone says something homophobic or anti-Semitic or otherwise rotten and the response is that “you can’t say that anymore,” which isn’t really it, friends. Obviously, you can say it because the person just did, and simply telling someone they can’t isn’t at all exploring why the words are hurtful or problematic. I really wanted more from the responses than woopsy doodles that’s upsetting but let’s move on because we’re cool.
Anyway, for me the most interesting part of the show was the relationship between the mothers and their sons. Anne, Yasmin, and Justine all have only one child, a son on the cusp of puberty. Ell also has a son this age, but her situation is different since she also has an older daughter and a much younger son. To some degree the show addresses the constant pull between raising children and a career. All of these women waited until later in life to have children. Anne went through many rounds of IVF in order to conceive. Yasmin has put her career on hold in order to spend time with Orion, and now she can’t shake a deep panic that something will happen to him if she’s away from him for too long, but she also is constantly grieving the person she hoped she would become. Justine, greatly helped by Malicious Martin, feels heaps of guilt for coming home late, missing school events and emails, and generally not being a worried mom like Yasmin. But all of this is less interesting than the intimate emotional relationships that the women have with their sons, which clearly eclipses their current relationships with their husbands. In one episode the scene moves from one mother and son to another as they chat before bed. The sons ask huge questions about things like their ancestors’ role in slavery or they press their mother for mundane things like a paintball party while gently assuring her that they don’t like real guns or they comfort their mother about their steadfast love or well, it’s different in Ell’s case. In other scenes we see how intelligent and aware these boys are of both their parents and the world around them, even as they are still children filled with wonder, innocence, and playfulness. It’s an interesting perspective that exists in the real world, but we don’t often see it portrayed on the small screen, and I appreciated it a great deal. In a lot of ways the kids seemed more emotionally aware and in touch than the adults. Albert, who is constantly witness to his parents’ arguments, is the playground peacekeeper, trying to keep kids from bullying or being bullied. His mother thinks this is nice, but doesn’t really see the connection to their own lives. Orion recognizes that his mother’s happiness often precipitates great sadness. Sebastian assures his mother that whether his father returns home or not, he will always be there for her, a constant in a sea of change. And then these same boys also run wild in the hopes of being able to get closer to wild bunnies on a hike.
And there you have it, I guess. Look, this review feels—much like the show it critiques—overly long and meandering. The short version is that—aside from the more nuanced relationships between mothers and sons—I mostly slogged through watching this series, constantly wondering if the next episode would be better. (My own dream forever deferred and never realized, I suppose.) Would I still watch a second season? Probably, but I wouldn’t be happy about it. Though, I will say that there is a moment in episode twelve where Martin gets taken down so beautifully that I snorted, guffawed, and cheered all at once, which is at least an endorsement for being emotionally invested enough to take great pleasure in his momentary demise.