Highston, from writer Bob Nelson (Nebraska) and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valeria Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), is a strange little animal. The half-hour comedy’s premise has been done, maybe better, in the past by the likes of FX’s Wilfred or even Hulu’s Moone Boy; 19-year-old Highston Liggets (newcomer Lewis Pullman) sees people others can’t see, and they help the sweet but lost boy find his place in the world. Highston‘s catch? All of Ligget’s hallucinations are real-life celebrities, playing themselves (the pilot stars Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, and name drops Madonna and Daniel Day-Lewis).
You would assume the problem going forward would be how committed these celebrities are to Highston‘s bizarre, almost dream-like tone (think Wes Anderson meets, well, Little Miss Sunshine). And fair enough, both Flea and Shaq were perfect choices straight out of the gate, musician and athlete alike willing to mock and enhance their public images at the same time. I’m tempted to say the inclusion of such familiar faces helped to elevate the presence of Mr. Pullman as Highston, but the young actor is endearing all his own. He manages to make Highston sympathetic, but not pitiable, displaying a sort of real-world naivety that reminded me of Jake Gyllenhaal in 2001’s Bubble Boy (this speaks much more to Mr. Gyllenhaal’s upward trajectory, and much less to my thoughts on 2001’s Bubble Boy)
The supporting cast—Chris Parnell and Mary Lynn Rajskub as Highston’s high-strung parents, long-time character actor Curtis Armstrong as his eccentric Uncle Billy—is both fantastic and worrisome. Fantastic, because the rapid-fire banter between them is filled with so many quality throw-away lines per minute you’re almost guaranteed at least one audible laugh (choice interaction, Parnell: “I did catch There Will Be Blood recently and liked it,” Rajskub: “Oh, the title spoiled it for me.”) Worrisome, though, because the sheer amount of jokes being thrown at you are so stream-of-consciousness, so wordplay-heavy it becomes overwhelming almost to the point of annoyance. There are moments, especially in the pilot’s first 10 minutes or so, where you want just a second to let the scene breathe a little and some story to be told. It’s the occasional sign of a director, or a writer, that allows improvisation but is reluctant to reign it in.
But the show finds itself toward the end, after a brief and disastrous attempt to get Highston professional medical help. After the credits roll, we’re as unsure about the next step forward as Highston Liggett. Whether the series even has a future depends on A) how much pure quirkiness you can withstand thrown at you in a half-hour, and B) how funny you find a 43-year-old Shaquille O’Neal sprinting down a hospital hallway.*
*For the record, my personal answers are A) not much and B) VERY.