Shaq and Flea Belie the Generic Coming-of-Age Story of Amazon’s ‘Highston’


Highston wastes no time at all in laying out its premise. The very first line of the Amazon pilot, delivered by a doctor at a psychiatric hospital, is: “So, your son imagines that celebrities are his friends?”

It’s the world’s most efficient start to a series. If that setup, combined with the eminently Midwestern vibe of the waiting room and the presence of Chris Parnell and Mary Lynn Rajskub as the title character’s parents, doesn’t appeal, a viewer can bail with barely a ten-second investment of their time. If it does, they’ll get 25 minutes of exactly what all of those things promise: a sweet, low-key coming-of-age dramedy with a mildly surreal twist.

This hyper-compressed approach to reeling in potential fans during Amazon’s famous open pilot season, the fourth of which goes live this Thursday, comes from writer Bob Nelson, of Nebraska, and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, of Little Miss Sunshine. (Sascha Baron Cohen is also involved, as an executive producer.) Highston is a seamless blend of those collaborators’ aesthetics, which are pretty similar to begin with: melancholy, slightly twee, and, it should be noted, very white.

Highston‘s ostensible hook, the one that aims to differentiate it from every other story about a straight, white, middle-class boy bumbling his way through adolescence — Amazon already has one of those, after all — is that opening pitch. At the age of 19, protagonist Highston Liggetts (Lewis Pullman) still has imaginary friends, although it wouldn’t be wholly accurate to call them imaginary: they’re imaginary versions of real people, specifically real famous people.

As Highston’s mother (Rajskub) explains, his “friends” act more like advisors or mentors, and they don’t always behave like their flesh-and-blood counterparts; Madonna, for example, is “very helpful” in spite of being “all slutty-like,” and Daniel Day-Lewis turns out to be so depraved she can’t watch his movies anymore. Not that she would in the first place, since the title of There Will Be Blood “spoiled it for me. I like to be surprised as to whether or not there will be blood.” But even though Highston’s hallucinations are very much not IRL versions of their inspirations, there is some logic to their appearance: Highston only sees living celebrities, never the dead.

It’s a fun idea, though it leaves Highston with the obvious problem of casting said celebrities. In the pilot, Highston banters with the unlikely pairing of Flea, the gap-toothed, pink-haired Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, and Shaquille O’Neal, booking his second comedy cameo of the year after Fresh Off the Boat. Both are game enough — Flea tells stories about his life on the road that make up in enthusiasm what they lack in relevance to Highston’s life, while Shaq uses his physicality for comic relief. Both are also billed as just “special guest stars” for the pilot, however, meaning that if some combination of user ratings and Amazon’s corporate calculus propels Highston to series, the show will need to book a whole season’s worth of equally compelling, and equally temporary, guest performers.

So while Highston‘s central gimmick is entertaining, it’s not a failsafe centerpiece to build a series around. That leaves the central conflict, laid out in the pilot: Highston likes his friends and thinks he functions just fine with their constant input, while his Wonder Bread parents (not that Highston isn’t Wonder Bread himself) are terrified that he doesn’t fit in. “It’s not your fault, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Rajskub tells him, “but you should hide it. And if anyone asks you, lie and run away.”

Highston’s parents then give him an ultimatum: after nearly two decades at home, it’s time for him to get a job, go to school, or commit himself to a psychiatric hospital. Even Flea admits this seems fair, so after ruling out school (applying would take months) and a job (a working conscience does not a good debt collector make), Highston checks into a hospital. There, he meets potential love interest Molly Meeker, only to have a Shaq-and-Flea-induced epiphany and bust out — voluntary inpatient status be damned. So much for that ultimatum!

Underneath the flashy plot device, it turns out, Highston is mostly a standard-issue story of self-acceptance, however endearingly told. Notably, Highston doesn’t seem interested in treating its hero’s quirk as a full-blown mental illness for him to work through, even as the show mines humor from it, a delicate line currently walked with surprising aplomb by the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Rather, the pilot seems to take Flea’s claim that Highston is, in fact, “the sanest person I’ve ever met” at face value. After all, he’s not the one offhandedly referencing her husband’s “complete inability to experience real joy.”

That could change over the course of a potential first season, but in the pilot, the theme of mental illness feels like a missed opportunity, left on the table in favor of the oddball-who’s-really-the-most-normal-person-around cliché. That doesn’t leave Highston, filled with deadpan, indie-comedy humor one feels obligated to describe as “quirky,” totally devoid of promise. But it does make it slightly less interesting — and in a pilot season, that can make all the difference.