Review: Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein

Imagine a piece of media exclusively premised on the conceit that people often mistakenly use "Frankenstein" to refer to the monster instead of the man who created him. Netflix's Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein takes this errant  tradition and turns it into a thirty minute meta-comedy sketch. It's like watching Tom Stoppard's Ed Wood.

David Harbour of Stranger Things notoriety plays a character named David Harbour III, using documentary to reckon with the acting legacy inherited from his megalomaniacal father David Harbour Jr. (also played by David Harbour) and the "real-life" drama played out in the latter's television play "Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein," in which he plays the titular character...whoever that is .   

The problem of naming Frankenstein's monster parallels the character's struggle with humanity and otherness. It's a dilemma as old as the first staged adaptation of the novel in 1823. Shelly herself attended the production and was pleased with the listing of the creature as "--" in the playbill, remarking, "This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good." The act of referring to the creature by the name of his creator was not unheard of before the Universal film of 1931, which credited the role as "the monster," but nevertheless the Hollywood film adaptation is seen as having led to the identification in the popular imagination, so much so that it might now be considered acceptable usage. So while some distinction is obviously necessary to discussion of the text, anyone who "corrects" the misappelation in casual conversation could be seen as pedantic. 

By some baffling, middling, comedic conceit Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein lampoons this pretension by playing up the equivalence between man and monster. David Harbour III's documentary concludes that his father was indeed a monster that probably murdered his co-star, while the plot of David Harbour Jr.'s televised play hinges upon him impersonating the erstwhile monster too successfully. Harbour Jr. is so threatened by his younger co-star that he destroys his own work, at one point breaking character to (falsely) declaim how he got into Julliard. The pretentiousness is transferred from the title, to the plot, to Harbour, to the inherent pretension of theatre itself.  Chekhov's gun is referenced so many times you would think there would be more bodies in the end, but I'm pleased to say the inherent humor in the word "dramaturge" does not go unexploited.

As one of the most adapted things of all time, I guess Frankenstein could be an apt vehicle to compare the superficiality of popular culture with the pretentiousness of fine art. But this show's humor succeeds more from facile mockery of Masterpiece Theatre than any attempt to reclaim the monster from Hollywood. Hell, Nick Dear's play Frankenstein (2011) might be said to have resurrected the creature as philosopher, and this is hardly a parody of that. No, maybe the true target of this satire is its own existence.

Released on the coat-tails of Stranger Things 3, this piece of content is aware of itself as a production of streaming-era excess.  Our inevitable consumption of it mirrors David Harbour Jr.'s indulgence at "London USA," a restaurant franchise whose selling pitch is "the finer things don't need to be fancy." At such a short run-time I'd be hard-pressed not to recommend this piece of content based simply on the sheer ham of David Harbour's performance in his many intersecting roles. And yet simultaneously it is so mind-bendingly vacuous. To think about this thing is more absurd than the thing itself, which has pretensions to absurdity, but ultimately embraces the layered irony of many a mockumentary, with extra layers on the side. You might even say that it's like eating beef wellington without the beef.