Who knew that David Harbour, currently enjoying a career high as Stranger Things’ gruff sheriff Jim Hopper, had such a knack for absurdist comedy? Or that “David Harbour III” (a fictionalised version of himself) had a dark family legacy bound up in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the theatah?
Watching Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein, Netflix’s odd half-hour mockumentary about a made-for-TV play that ended in tragedy, feels like watching a friend’s weird indie show, or – perhaps more universal – your friend showing you something random-but-mesmerising like “Too Many Cooks” on YouTube. After emerging from the rabbit hole, you’re entertained, to be sure, but you also wonder What the hell did I just watch?
In this case, the answer would seem to be: a send-up of the made-for-TV play and other acting-centric TV programming like Inside the Actors Studio, in the style of Documentary Now!, by way of Serial. Written by Arrested Development’s John Levenstein, it follows Harbour as he sorts through archival footage of his father, David Harbour Jr., a celebrated actor of stage and screen. While he enjoyed fame in title roles like The Crying Detective, it was when he took on the truly ambitious role of Frankenstein (but is it the doctor or the monster?) that his career plummeted.
Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein is both the name of the mockumentary and of its subject, the televised play in which an aspiring female scientist journeys to a remote island to meet Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, unwittingly revealing several layers of deception in the lab. It’s part living-room play in a period piece home, complete with howling madwoman mother in the attic and Harbour as the monster grunting his way through the basement. Or is he?
Just as you start to get engrossed in the play-within-a-doc’s plot, one of the actors clumsily sidesteps the camera while eyeing it the entire time, or blurts out a hamfisted line about Chekhov’s gun. And that’s where the true brilliance lies, in having talented actors like Kate Berlant and Alfred Molina play so convincingly at being awful actors. While my own knowledge of the history and relative quality of televised plays is limited, I could tell that I was being let in on a long-running joke about the awkwardness of fitting the stage into the parameters of the screen. Like when you catch a meme online and only just understand it; you wouldn’t be able to riff on the joke yourself, but you still laugh.
Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein is filled with as many random references as an actor’s trunk full of props – some so out of left field that it’s sheer luck to catch it. For instance, a friend just happened to show me Orson Welles’ disastrous champagne commercial for the first time recently, which no doubt inspired the bizarre “London, U.S.A.” interstitials. Not knowing the source doesn’t detract from the experience, but it makes it immeasurably more amusing.
It’s not all a laughing matter, however. Interspersed with footage from the show is Harbour’s present-day investigation into his father’s fall from grace, from recreating his father’s office to confiding in family friend and David Harbour Jr.’s agent to hiring a dramaturg to do some digging. It’s all very deadpan, the guest actors dryly describing a supposedly larger-than-life star, because the stakes are high to no one but Harbour himself. It’s almost as if he is acting in an entirely different documentary than everyone around him – which is reflected in his father’s performances in Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein, carrying the play on his shoulders among a coterie of amateurs.
It must be said that Harbour takes on an impressive array of roles, from his present fictionalised self to his father to Frankenstein-as-monster to the creature himself. (“And that’s how I got into Juilliard!” gets funnier every time.) It would not be surprising if Harbour went the route of Adam Scott or Fred Armisen and made this a recurring thing, showing up in future mockumentaries in entirely different roles, as he seems to be having so much fun with it.
There’s even brief, surprising pathos, as the mockumentary makes a sharp, late-stage turn into murder mystery (seriously, with mere minutes to go), building to a commentary about artists as monstrous figures. But by then, it’s so muddled that it’s unclear if this is what David Harbour III thinks, or the real Harbour, or Levenstein writing it.
It’s just too short. Part of the fun of Chekhov’s gun is stretching out the time between its introduction and its inevitable firing. When it goes off half-cocked, the audience barely gets enough time to savor the tension of its presence. I could have watched the entirety of the Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein play rather than intercut between that and Harbour’s attempts at playing Sarah Koenig.
That said, the main benefit of its brevity is that you can fit in multiple viewings without breaking a sweat -something wholeheartedly recommended. Everything lands better on the second watch, from the actors’ awkward blocking to the dramatic beats in the Joey Vallejo mystery. In that way, you can treat Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein like an episode of Documentary Now!, plopping your friends down on the couch for a mere half hour and going down your own personal rabbit hole.
Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein is available on Netflix now.