‘Unstable’ review: Rob and John Owen Lowe star in this charming comedy

4 min read

Created by Rob Lowe, his son and co-star John Owen Lowe and “Better Off Ted” creator Victor Fresco, “Unstable” is an adorable workplace comedy that’s odd enough to feel fresh and traditional enough to feel good.

To almost prove a point central to the series, in which a famous father overshadows, overpowers and otherwise steals focus from a less outgoing son, let me ask: Who does not love Rob Lowe? At a spookily youthful 59, he’s the veteran of a varied career, in which the person and the parts often seem to mingle. Listening to his excellent interview podcast, “Literally!” (a title echoing his “Parks and Recreation” catch phrase, drawn from Lowe’s own habitual use of the word), is not substantially different from watching him act.

His hallmarks are energy, confidence and looks so good they seem like a parody of handsomeness. They are qualities he can turn to various ends, shading confidence into narcissism, making the energy inspiring or exhausting as the situation demands, though such is his appeal that even when his characters are taxing, they remain charming.

Lowe is undeniably a star but has flourished in ensemble pieces and supporting roles, from “The Outsiders” to “The West Wing” to his currently running Fox firehouse drama “9-1-1: Lone Star,” from his bizarre turn as Liberace’s plastic surgeon in Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra” to the comedy here in question.

To say that he makes an impression in short order is not to say that a little of him goes a long way. Something of a cross, in life and onscreen, between a scamp and an upright citizen, he has no problem with self-mockery, as in the great undersung sitcom “The Grinder,” in which he plays an unemployed, self-dramatizing actor who, having played a lawyer on television, believes he is one.

In “Unstable,” Lowe plays Ellis Dragon, a renowned and eccentric scientific genius, recently widowed, who has turned sugar into plastic, created a bruiseless avocado and a bionic pancreas so inexpensive that “you could sell them in a three-pack at Costco” and is working on a way to turn atmospheric carbon into concrete. (The series’ bursts of technobabble might or might not sound ridiculous to a person who knows something about biotechnology; to a person who doesn’t, they just sound ridiculous.) You should not think of Elon Musk, either in reference to Lowe’s character, or at all, ever, if you can help it.

The loss of his wife has unmoored Ellis, making him less focused at a crucial time — he’s in danger of losing his biotech company — if no less energetic: He dances, he sings.

“Are you all right?” asks Anna (Sian Clifford), his self-contained second-in-command. “It’s just that you seem to be getting more, maybe, I don’t know, why dance around it — crazier.”

“Crazier?” Ellis asks in turn. “Or am I just letting the beauty of the world move me in a more profound way?”

“That’s literally the same thing.”

As the series’ designated adult, Anna sends for Ellis’ son, Jackson, played by John Owen Lowe, who has inherited his father’s science smarts but is teaching flute across the country and scraping by on his own. Jackson reluctantly comes west, intending to stay only a day, but the script finds reasons for him to remain. Ellis, though he loves his son, would nevertheless like to remake him in his own image; Jackson wants only to be Jackson.

“I don’t want you to be someone else,” says Ellis. “I want you to be exactly a version of you…. Exactly sort of you.”

Grieving as he is, Ellis spends the season without a love interest, which is oddly refreshing. His main relationships are with Jackson; the ironic, all-business Anna, who secretly writes fan fiction about her office mates; Juan (Frank Gallegos), the gardener-philosopher who runs the landscape crew on which Ellis moonlights weekly, for spiritual reasons; and Leslie (Fred Armisen, whose deal with the devil evidently guarantees him an appearance in every other television comedy), the company-appointed therapist he has locked in his (very nice) basement.

Also in the mix are lab mates Ruby (Emma Ferreira), relaxed, and Luna (Rachel Marsh), stiff, differently interested in Jackson; newly promoted project manager Malcolm (Aaron Branch), a shy late bloomer devoted to Ellis; and the already established comedy team of Tom Allen and J.T. Parr (“Chad and JT Go Deep”) as entitled idiot twins determined to bring Ellis down.

Through whatever felicities of matching actor to well-written role, the cast is shown off to particularly good advantage. Without making any outrageous claims for the completely enjoyable, not at all groundbreaking series they share, I found their company invigorating.

As to John Owen Lowe, he has a sweet, ordinary guy vibe fit for the part. You would not necessarily identify him as his father’s son; he’s got some of his father’s features, but he’s softer around the edges. In Brat Pack terms, he’s the Andrew McCarthy version of Rob Lowe. (“Unstable” is their second television series, after the short-lived paranormal road-trip reality show, “The Lowe Files,” which also featuring Rob’s other son, Matthew.)

Social media (and this paper) have lately gone wild on the subject of “nepo babies,” as if people didn’t go into their parents’ businesses all the time, or inherit some of the qualities that made their folks successful. Or would you deprive the world of Sammy Davis Jr.? Liza Minnelli? Pieter Brueghel the Younger? It’s more than possible that were John Owen not the son of Rob, he wouldn’t be starring, at least not yet, in his own co-created series. But one might say the same of Dan and Eugene Levy, and look how well that turned out.


Where: Netflix
When: Any time, starting Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14)