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The quirky star of “The Fly” and “Jurassic Park” takes on the role of zeitgeist whisperer, innocently inquiring into our fascinations with sneakers, jeans and tattoos.For a game-changing, earthshaking new player in the entertainment market, Disney Plus arrives Tuesday with a pretty motley assortment of original shows. There are a couple of franchise extensions (the Star Wars series “The Mandalorian,” the strenuously named “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”), a few self-promotional reality series (“The Imagineering Story,” “Marvel’s Hero Project”), a couple of showcases for Pixar animation (“SparkShorts,” “Forky Asks a Question”).
It’s saying something that the most immediately engaging and recognizably television-like of the new Disney shows, for some of us, will be “The World According to Jeff Goldblum.” (It begins with one episode Tuesday, and adds episodes weekly beginning Friday.) Goldblum may have built an acting career on oddity — his tics and hesitations, his mincing praying-mantis carriage, his distinctive arch-naïveté and sly hipsterism — but his series is reassuringly familiar: Guy of a certain age parlays cultish success into gig as televised interviewer cum zeitgeist whisperer. (See Anthony Bourdain, Jerry Seinfeld, David Chang, Elvis Mitchell.)
Goldblum’s take on the genre, produced with National Geographic, is, not surprisingly, more personal than usual. The diverse topics he explores — sneakers, ice cream, tattoos and jeans, in the episodes available for review — are, we’re told, linked by Goldblum’s own wide-ranging curiosity. And for those who know him only glancingly, from “Jurassic Park” or Apartments.com commercials, he provides occasional Cliffs Notes to his own persona: “Bohemian, artist and poet, that’s what I’m trying to affect”; “Known for my hands, my stillness and my unbridled joy, and my ability to have a childlike sense of wonder.”
That performed self-consciousness is as charming here as ever, though it may be a good thing that it’s being served up in small doses a week apart. Goldblum is nearly impossible not to like, whether he’s watching a high-tech gizmo in operation and exclaiming “It’s doing something, it’s doing something!” or making interview subjects deeply uncomfortable with his soulful hugs or invitations to engage in public prancing.
Goldblum’s genius is for rendering a child’s overwhelming need for attention in a pure, nonirritating form, and there’s a theme running through “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” that relates to that. Looking at tattoos, sneakers and bluejeans and asking why each is so confoundingly popular, he arrives at variations of the same answer: They allow for both conformity and individuality; they’re uniforms that are also an inexhaustible means of self-expression.
The show’s means of expression, however, are quite finite. The formula is pretty ironclad: a statistic (half the world’s population wears denim; 45 million Americans have tattoos); a question (“How did that happen?” “Why do people get tattoos?”); mob-scene segments (sneaker and tattoo conventions) and magic-tech segments (at the Adidas and Levi-Strauss labs); sprightly animated summaries of rubber production and the history of denim. In keeping with both Jeff-as-artist and Jeff-as-center-of-attention, he helps design his own sneaker, ice cream flavor and pair of jeans.
It feels like a fairly extreme case of a star parachuting into the scenes his producers have set up, dispensing charisma and charming non sequiturs (twice in four episodes he declares he’s having the best time of his life) and not forgetting to find a backdrop for the 15-second philosophical wrap-up. When you get past the Goldblumishness of it, there’s probably nothing you need to go out of your way for.
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Watching the four episodes together — and seeing Goldblum in conversation with sneaker promoters, a purveyor of highbrow ice cream, a mystical big-wave surfer or a promoter of eco-friendly technologies (and eliminator of jobs) at Levi-Strauss — you might decide that “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” is really a show about hucksters, and that the host is someone who appreciates, and knows, a good hustle.