Is Rob Lowe’s Netflix Comedy the Next Parks and Rec?

Netflix's Unstable, starring Rob Lowe and his son John Owen Lowe, has a cheerful sensibility but needs room to grow.

Unstable. Rob Lowe as Ellis in episode 101 of Unstable.
Photo: John P. Fleenor | Netflix

This Unstable review contains no spoilers.

Having real-life relatives pair up in movies and TV shows is a strategy as old as motion entertainment itself. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were married while starring in the pioneering classic I Love Lucy. Dan and Eugene Levy both won critical acclaim and adulation for their father-son roles in the recently finished Schitt’s Creek. When audiences know that the actors are related in real life, it often feels like it adds an authenticity to the performances that otherwise wouldn’t be present. 

Netflix is trying to take advantage of this long-running casting trend by pairing Rob Lowe and his son John Owen Lowe together in a workplace/family dramedy mix that resembles shows like Parks and Recreation. The concept of Unstable is creative and zany on the surface, but does the acting and writing back up the proposed ingenuity of the series? 

Rob Lowe plays a depressed biotech company CEO named Ellis Dragon. Ellis is trying to overcome the recent death of his wife by doubling down on his erratic business ideas and high-strung personality traits. He enlists the help of his son, Jackson (John Owen Lowe) to help him out around the office while also giving unsolicited advice to Jackson about becoming more driven and creative. Jackson is a somewhat boring young man who makes a living playing the flute, something Ellis is not overly proud of. Ellis’ condescension towards Jackson is displayed in veiled pot shots towards his even-keel temperament and more rigid line of thinking. 

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These dualities are supposed to make for an entertaining pairing, and they do for the most part. Both father and son have an easy rapport that translates well to the television screen, but most of the storytelling is done through rapid-fire retorts and comebacks between the characters. Unlike some modern comedy-dramas that have more of a focus on intimate plotting, each episode focuses more on the growth of the characters as they try to move past tragedy. This allows the jokes and interactions to do the storytelling, but it’s not a strategy that keeps your attention from start to finish always. It’s easy to feel your eyes wander from your Netlflix screen to your iPhone if you’re not all that focused. 

Supporting characters such as Ellis’ excitable assistant Malcolm (Aaron Branch) and his pal Leslie (Fred Armisen) give the typical sitcom flare to the proceedings, but this show could have really been upped several notches by making it more of an ensemble cast. It feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity to not flesh out the side characters more when the environment they’re set in is unique. There are plenty of workplace shows, but hardly any that take place in an occupational setting surrounding science and innovation. This gives Unstable a niche that should be enjoyed by many viewers, but they’ll also be left craving more of it. There’s always a finicky line to walk when using science or medicine as a focus of your show because then fact-checkers and uptight viewers will want accuracy. 

The main highlight of Unstable is how easily charismatic and delectable Rob Lowe’s comedic energy is as the protagonist. Lowe’s TV chops are known to almost everyone with roles on The West Wing and the previously-mentioned Parks and Recreation. With so much vitriol directed towards big wigs and CEOs in real life, Lowe’s portrayal of Ellis is one that humanizes the rich prick trope. Viewers understand his suffering and the ways he tries to cope with it. Seeing his arrogant, yet childlike sense of wonder in the workplace gives hope that more bosses could actually be like this in our own lives. 

John Owen Lowe does a commendable job as the yang to his father’s yin. Jackson is awkward, unconfident, yet stern towards his father’s parental guidance. These personality traits aren’t easy to play, but Owen Lowe does so sufficiently. For someone who doesn’t have all that much acting experience before Unstable, his on-screen joke delivery chops are able to combat and mesh with his father’s simultaneously. 

One of the issues with the streaming era of television is that a comedy series like Unstable doesn’t really get all the time it needs to breathe and grow. With only eight episodes clocking in at 25 minute run times each, the season is a fraction of network sitcom seasons that run for 22-24 episodes. This does force the creators to have a tighter focus because of the lack of time to work with, but it also doesn’t give us a chance to live with the unique characters, get to know their quirks, and enjoy side storylines that a show like this would benefit from. 

Unstable is a very easy watch that will be enjoyed by both longtime and new fans of Rob Lowe. The star’s comedic timing is still impeccable as he ages into his late 50s, and the chemistry he has with son, John Owen Lowe, is tangible for the most part. Sometimes the duo aren’t together enough for my liking as they attempt to develop other parts of the cast, but the sciency concepts and offbeat humor surrounding entrepreneurial ventures and capitalism is appreciated. A solid show that warrants a second season, but nothing award-worthy here. 

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All eight episodes of Unstable are available to stream on Netflix now.


3.5 out of 5