HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Facebook Watch gets into the quality TV game with a dramatic exploration of grieving and memory starring Elizabeth Olsen, Janet McTeer and Kelly Marie Tran.
In an all-too-glutted landscape of scripted television, the path to programming legitimacy can take a while. It’s one thing to throw a show or two on your cable network or digital platform. It isn’t always the same thing to launch a show that cuts through the clutter and demands the attention of critics and viewers alike.
AMC did it fast with Mad Men. Netflix did it fast with House of Cards. On the other hand, look at Paramount Network and its tough run before Yellowstone. Or look at the number of shows Crackle produces that I could list to probably blank stares.
As an overworked TV critic writing for an overloaded TV-watching audience, it’s my sad duty or my pleasure to report that with Sorry for Your Loss, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend and online Sept. 18, Facebook Watch is officially on the board as a potential destination for quality content.
That’s not to malign the reality shows starring Tom Brady and Lonzo Ball or something called Sacred Lies that I keep meaning to watch more of. It also isn’t to say that Sorry for Your Loss is flawless, top-tier television. It’s just the first Facebook Watch show to make me go, “OK, if this were on Showtime or Amazon, this might be in Emmy conversations.”
The series, created by Kit Steinkellner, has a strong pedigree, with Switched at Birth veteran Lizzy Weiss serving as showrunner and James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) directing early installments.
Elizabeth Olsen stars as Leigh, a young widow trying to figure out the path forward after the recent death of her husband (Mamoudou Athie’s Matt). Unable to bring herself to return to the apartment they shared, she’s living with her New Agey mom (Janet McTeer) and recovering addict sister, Jules (Kelly Marie Tran). Leigh angrily teaches barre classes at her mother’s studio and squirms through grief counseling group, trying to avoid her equally forlorn brother-in-law, Danny (Jovan Adepo). It all takes place across a lived-in version of residential Los Angeles in a show that’s conversation-focused but rarely claustrophobic.
With Sorry for Your Loss, Facebook Watch has created a program that suits the brand identity. What is Facebook, after all, but the place where performative emotions of all kinds find a communal home in the virtual living room of the 21st century? The characters in the show, suffering in different ways, are all struggling to communicate with the people in their lives. The question of whether people come to Facebook to watch scripted versions of how people behave on Facebook is a question that Facebook could answer better than I can.
This might sound like it could be a slog to watch, but it’s very well constructed through its first four episodes. The proportion of running time spent wallowing in sadness would be intolerable if the episodes were longer — think of the more lachrymose sections of Seven Seconds or the unrelenting bleakness of Ozark — but it’s comfortably palatable within 27-minute installments. And while this definitely isn’t a comedy, the episodes strike a good balance between the present, when characters spend a lot of time crying and shouting at one another, and flashbacks in which their behavior can be cute, funny and romantic. The show is smart about the connective tissue of memory and how places or sensory experiences can serve as time machines, making a lie of any suggestion that it’s easy to move forward after tragedy.
Wisely, the series doesn’t pretend that Leigh and Matt had a perfect marriage, and its most honest aspect might be the way it shows fights or periods of estrangement even on the “happy” side of the story. Steinkellner’s previous credits are primarily as a playwright, and I can’t say how much the tone here is typical of what she does. But it works, intersecting perfectly with Weiss’ and Ponsoldt’s strengths. Later directors include Azazel Jacobs, Jamie Babbit, Rose Troche, Jessica Yu and Allison Anders — an impressive bunch.
Sundance and superhero movies have made my primary sense of Elizabeth Olsen one of harried intensity, and it’s telling that a show in which she spends half her time destroyed by misery is perhaps the most at ease I’ve ever seen her. To work as a TV star, it helps to project a persona that people want to spend time with, and as great as I’ve found her in things like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Wind River, this is her first “Sure, be on my TV every week” performance. She’s blessed to share scenes with Tran, who has, with only a limited resume, proven she can be instantly likable, here evading nearly every stereotype of the black-sheep sibling. Athie and Adepo bring a similarly warm, ingrained chemistry. The only member of the ensemble who isn’t making this look easy is McTeer, who may be the cast’s funniest piece when she isn’t struggling with an American accent.
Sorry for Your Loss stumbles a little when it’s asked to be most like a TV show. Several coy misdirects about Matt’s death are frustrating and contrived, in the same way the ongoing “How did Jack die?” question on This Is Us eventually became ghoulish. Less frustrating but no less contrived is an unfolding mystery relating first to Matt’s password-locked cellphone and then to the calls he continues to receive months after his demise. I get that one of the show’s themes is the way death makes us realize how limited our knowledge is of other people, even those we think we know best. Second wife? Secret kid? Even though I care about these characters, I could do without their riddles.
I’ll probably find out the answers, though; this already feels like a show of some worth, even if it requires accepting yet another stream of TV into what is a roaring river.